Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH - Allison Bartlett

My youngest son is a bibliophile so I thought he might enjoy this piece of nonfiction and purchased it for him for Christmas. Apparently it didn't impress him as it remained at my house so I picked it up one day a few weeks ago. I myself read mostly fiction but I try to get in a nonfiction or two once in a while. This one is perfect for me as it reads much like a fiction book and I couldn't put it down.

This true story of a bibliokleptomaniac (a person who steals books not for profit but for love of them and who simply “must” have them) is really about one man's obsession for rare books and another's obsession to catch him stealing them.

John Gilkey, who had a very unconventional upbringing in a family where thievery was commonplace, grew up to be a narcissistic thief of rare books. In San Francisco Gilkey used his job at Saks Fifth Avenue to steal credit card information that he later used in a very successful scheme to acquire rare books from all over the world.

In Bartlett's interviews he appeared to have no remorse. His claim was that it is unfair that the the books he wants are priced so that he cannot afford them. While feeling strongly that he is entitled to them it follows, in his mind, that he is justified in simply taking them. He remains therefore by his judgment guilt-free as he was only doing what he “had to do.”

The other major character in Bartlett's book is Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer who has been a victim of Gilkey and has turned detective determined to catch him. By interviewing and then following Sanders on his investigative travels Bartlett opens up to the reader the inner workings of the rare book collecting world. Much is revealed about how a book acquires the status of “rare” and what kinds of people pursue the ownership of them. Beyond just recognizing rareness in the book world there is a whole psychology to collecting that Bartlett gives some insight into.

As of the publishing of this book in 2009 the Gilkey story is still evolving as the author revealed in her afterword. Gilkey is still stealing and learning new ways to do so. As a sociopath he is a very interesting character. By the end of her investigation Bartlett realized that he is not only trying to create a collection that is to be admired but is also trying to refashion his own persona into a kind of “gentleman” that others should look up to. How strange. For my most recent nonfiction adventure it was well worth the travel into the world of rare book collecting and also into the world of a strange kind of sociopath.

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