Review: Allison Hoover Bartlett's THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH

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



  • Reply
    Shelley P
    September 16, 2009 at 3:30 am

    Not sure I’ll add this to my reading list but if I ever see a Cat in the Hat matt-covered edition in a junk shop, I’ll snaffle it.

    • Reply
      Shelley P
      September 16, 2009 at 2:40 pm

      {Just to clarify ~ of course, I meant ‘snaffle it’ as in buy a bargain, not ‘snaffle it’ as in five finger discount!!!}

  • Reply
    September 16, 2009 at 8:09 am

    I really do appreciate non-fiction true crime stories, especially if the author gets into direct contact with the subject and you hear their own words and tale. So, I really appreciate this review, PCN. Thanks.

  • Reply
    September 16, 2009 at 9:20 am

    I have a real problem with collectors of all types. I think an object’s worth is so random (i.e., Britney Spears’ gum, one of the baseballs used in a World Series). Art, I can understand, but if you are just going to hide it away in a small room of your house, what’s the real value? But, I digress.

    While I wouldn’t agree with the antagonist in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, I can certainly relate to one of the statements attributed to him (“…booksellers…put such high price tags on rare editions that someone of moderate income would have to steal them”). Readers should be able to view these rare editions. Seems wrong that the average reader is unable to. I mean, yes, we should be required to wear gloves to prevent wear and tear, but a book should not be allowed to just sit on a bookshelf or under lock and key just to give someone with way too much money some bragging rights. Case in point: Richard Stark’s Parker series of novels are virtually impossible to obtain these days. Most of them were stolen from the library and when I ask at used book stores I visit for a copy, they laugh at me. I heard they will be reprinted someday, but that is just wrong. Stories are to be read, hopefully allow the reader some insight on a subject matter, then passed on to the next person. It’s the author’s originally intended purpose. Otherwise it is like buying a pair of sneakers and not wearing them. Ridiculous!

    • Reply
      September 16, 2009 at 9:32 am

      Okay, Reader#9, but why do you think those Richard Stark books are not in the library? THEY WERE STOLEN BY PEOPLE LIKE JOHN GILKEY!

      I do agree with you that collectors are just crazy sometimes (like those people who collect those quarters from different states or gold one dollar coins rather than put them back into circulation! Yeah, you know who you are!) But, I will draw the line at stealing.

  • Reply
    September 16, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Too bad good stories are so rare. Don’t hate on collectors, just disapprove of people who steal in general.

    Thanks for the review and the heads up on this one, PCN.

    YOU are a rare find yourself!

  • Reply
    Angela T.
    September 22, 2009 at 9:00 am

    I really liked the book. I thought there should be more punishment but apparently the justice system doesn’t agree. I couldn’t understand the book dealers not reporting the crimes. I couldn’t understand Gilkey’s motives either. I still thought Bartlett’s writing about the book thefts was interesting and informative. I liked learning a bit about rare book collecting.

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