Though Allison Hoover Bartlett‘s reporting skills can’t be faulted—she’s more than thorough with her facts and even has footnotes—this true story of John Gilkey, the man in the title, is a frustrating one. Gilkey is an unrepentant book thief who steals rare first editions and Ken Sanders is the “bibliodick” who chases him. We learn much about the rare-book trade and there are some intriguing elements of a police procedural as Sanders tracks his prey, but ultimately this is a story without an ending.
The tale begins when a friend of Bartlett’s comes across an edition of a Kreuterbuch, or plant book of botanical medicine. Its publication is traced back to 1630 Germany and Bartlett suspects it was stolen. In researching its history, she finds the theft of rare books is rampant, with thieves seldom caught or punished. Many of the Internet accounts she reads refer to Sanders, a rare book dealer turned amateur detective to catch Gilkey. Once Bartlett hears about Gilkey, she knows she must get his story.
And get it she does. Despite Gilkey being an elusive character, Bartlett impressively manages in-person interviews with him and even gets the chance to accompany him on a scouting expedition when he goes to a store to peruse books he wants to acquire (he never actually commits any crimes in her presence). He also arranges for her to visit his mother and look around his bedroom, where Bartlett finds a stash of books in his closet, possibly stolen.
The story is fascinating when it educates me about book collecting and how to identify a rare edition. The first edition of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat would have a matte cover instead of a shiny one. A pamphlet of poetry Edgar Allan Poe wrote when he was 14 that was printed in 1827 without his name on the cover (he was simply identified as “a Bostonian”) was bought for $15 by a sharp-eyed collector and sold for $198,000.
Man is also engrossing when it details how Sanders worked with law enforcement to track and trap Gilkey. But the book thief remains a frustrating enigma. He seems intelligent enough to know about rare books and fool many dealers but can’t seem to grasp how his actions hurt others. He believes booksellers deserve to be ripped off since they’re mostly dishonest people who put such high price tags on rare editions that someone of moderate income would have to steal them.
As a former reporter, I understand how Bartlett wanted continuing access to Gilkey so she remained more or less neutral when he spouted these ridiculous claims, but I really wanted Gilkey to be asked harder questions such as, “How would you feel if someone stole one of your books? Why do you think the world owes you anything?” I don’t have to like the main character of a story to enjoy it but I do want to understand him and it’s not clear why Gilkey feels so entitled.
Because he is a sociopath, I wanted justice and it doesn’t happen. Bartlett fully explains why it’s hard to punish someone for this kind of crime and of course she can’t invent an ending to a nonfiction tale, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting one that’s more satisfying. I think all stories, whether true or not, needs an ending (which is different from closure), unless the door is left open for a sequel. That doesn’t seem to be Bartlett’s intention so this intriguing tale unfortunately feels unfinished.
Nerd verdict: Excellent reporting, though Man remains elusive