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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

Despite its title, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is not a book about some especially avid reader who becomes so obsessed with reading that he allows it to take over the rest of his life. One only has to read the book’s subtitle, The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, to learn that “the man” in question had a much different problem.

That John Gilkey is an obsessed book collector is beyond question. Gilkey’s gnawing desire to own rare books, however, does not make him unique – or even uncommon. People collect a variety of objects for a variety of reasons and many of them do become obsessed with the chase and the displaying of their “trophies.” What makes Gilkey unusual enough to have a book written about him is that he entirely satisfies his urge to own rare books by stealing them. Price is no object for a man who never intends to pay for the books he adds to his personal library.

In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett combines Gilkey’s story with that of the man who became obsessed with stopping his thefts, rare book dealer Ken Sanders. Against all odds, she was able to befriend both men to such a degree that she was able to gain insight into what motivated each of them – one to steal books and the other to spend countless hours trying to stop him.

Bartlett spent a great deal of time getting to know John Gilkey. She visited him in jail when he was serving time for stealing expensive items from rare book dealers; she interviewed him extensively while he was a free man; and she visited his mother’s home where she was allowed to see some of the books being kept for him there. However, as Ken Sanders, the man most responsible for putting Gilkey behind bars for extended periods of time reminded Bartlett, Gilkey is a born liar and what he says can never be trusted. Bartlett, though, despite Gilkey’s lies and distortions, develops a sound theory as to why he is so driven to steal rare books despite the increasing regularity with which he is caught and sent to jail.

Book dealer/detective Ken Sanders seems to have been more of a challenge for Bartlett than Gilkey turned out to be. Sanders seemed reluctant to discuss in any detail what motivated him to dedicate so much of his life to Gilkey’s capture and arrest. He preferred, instead, to let his actions speak for themselves. Sanders did open the door to the world of rare book dealers for Bartlett by placing her in contact with many of Gilkey’s victims, and she combines the insights she gained from those interviews with her own research to recount the history of book lust and book theft from the earliest days to the present.

This is the perfect true crime book for book lovers, a morality play to remind even the most obsessed of us of the dangers of those obsessions.

Rated at: 4.5

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