Allison Hoover Bartlett’s non-fiction book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (on sale for $6 on amazon) tells the story of a man who stole dozens of rare books from dealers (whose security protocols were often quite lax) because, well, he wanted them. Or he felt entitled to them, because the fact that he couldn’t afford them was just unfair. He’s a con artist, but not a very sharp one, just a persistent one with an pathological self-delusion when questions of right and wrong interfere with what he wants. He’s fascinating, enough that Bartlett’s portrayal is compelling reading despite only going about half as deep as it could have on the subject.
John Gilkey is the book thief of the title, a man who preys on the trust in the cloistered world of rare book collectors and dealers, most of whom still trade in these commodities for love of the books (but not necessarily to read them), and none of whom seem aware of the possibility that someone might rip them off. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of communication among dealers, allowing Gilkey, who isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but manages to keep himself out of jail for longer than you’d expect, to stretch out his spree by avoiding hitting stores multiple times and eventually spreading out across the country, even pulling a scam or two via mail.
Yet the peculiar part about Gilkey’s crime wave is that he never sells the books. He collects the books just to collect them; he doesn’t even read them. He focuses on the Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, a list I’ve haphazardly been reading my way through (despite its sketchy tabulation), because, it seems, these books have been identified for him as Important or Prestigious. His knowledge is superficial and his moral compass is either damaged or nonexistent – he talks of “getting” books, not stealing them, and feels no remorse for the dealers he’s robbed. He can’t afford the books, so the logical option is to take them, because why should rich people have these things while he does without? His ability to rationalize his actions reminded me of pedophiles or serial killers who, even after they’re caught and convicted, remain unrepentant and even try to convince others of the rightness or fairness of their crimes. Fortunately Gilkey was completely nonviolent, although I wonder what would have happened had any bookseller confronted him while he tried to steal a book.
The story of how he was finally stopped is almost as interesting, a credit to the efforts of a single book dealer, Ken Sanders, a lapsed Mormon who is also a collector (and perhaps hoarder) of rare books, purchasing them for his store in part so he can be their temporary custodian. Sanders was the director of security for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America for several years and took Gilkey’s thefts personally, helping coordinate reports on the crimes and disseminate information to try to protect other dealers from falling for the same scam. Those efforts led to Gilkey’s arrest, but law enforcement’s interest in thefts of rare books, even valuable ones, isn’t that high, and the sentences for such crimes are often light if the criminals are prosecuted at all, meaning Gilkey serves his time, re-offends, and is arrested again, but the thefts continue. Many of the books he stole in his original spree have been recovered but others remain at large.
That last point is where Bartlett herself becomes enmeshed in the story herself, as she may have seen some of those books herself when interviewing Gilkey’s mother and sister, eventually seeing a group of books Gilkey asked his mother to store for him. The statutes of limitations on many of those thefts have long expired, but their recovery is also relevant for the books’ historical value, giving Bartlett an ethical dilemma she never fully resolves. Bartlett shies away from examining the books, but doing so could have given her some titles to give to Sanders for circulation, possibly returning some to their former owners, regardless of criminal charges.
Aside from the unsatisfactory resolution to Bartlett’s ethical quandary, she also didn’t get deep enough into Gilkey’s pre-thieving history to explain why he is the way he is. This seems like a mental illness, but Gilkey’s hints about thieves within his family, stealing from each other as a fact of life, go unexamined and unresearched. Gilkey seemed forthcoming with Bartlett, almost eager to tell his story, yet we don’t really get much beyond understanding that he’s not a profiteer and he’s not playing with a full deck. Once he’s caught, he’s not clever enough to change tactics, so the hunt for him (which, while short, is thrilling to read) can’t sustain the second part of the book. We do get some glimpses of Gilkey’s past, and his weird personality, but could have used more, so the book as it stands feels a little light even though it’s very interesting and an easy read.
Bartlett mentions along the way that she’s a fan of narrative nonfiction, mentioning four titles that rank among her favorites:
* In Cold Blood, which I read last year but somehow never reviewed. It was interesting, well written, but the crime at heart is tough to read about, and Capote’s platonic relationship with the truth detracts from the power of his narrative. It’s a better read for its historical value and literary importance than for the story within.
* The Professor and the Madman, which I read about ten years ago and loved, although its narrative is looser than most, without much of a conclusion.
* The Orchid Thief, which I haven’t read but purchased last week.
* The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which I also haven’t read and would love to hear about if any of you have.
Next up: Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.