Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

At one end of my desk sits a nearly four-hundred-year-old book cloaked in a tan linen sack and a good deal of mystery. My friend Malcolm came across the book while carrying out the sad task of sorting through his brother's belongings after he committed suicide. On the sack was a handwritten note that began, "To whom it may concern," and went on to explain that several years earlier, a friend had withdrawn the book from a college library where she worked and had accidentally taken it with her when she moved away. He wrote that she wanted the book to be returned to the library anonymously, but that he hadn't had time to do so. Gingerly Malcolm lifted the large, heavy tome with gleaming brass clasps from its sack. "Isn't it beautiful?" he said as he handed it to me. My first thought was: Yes, beautiful. My second: It's stolen. [excerpt from opening paragraph]

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Riverhead Books, 2009
Nonfiction; 274 pgs

Allison Hoover Bartlett, a book lover in her own right, came across a 400 year old book whose province was a bit of a mystery. Her curiosity was immediately piqued and she began to investigate where the book came from. Her interest in the rare book took her to an unexpected place, and she was soon caught up in a story about a book thief and the man who was determined to catch him. From the moment I first heard about this book, I knew I had to read it.

John Charles Gilkey not only loves books, but he longs for a collection of his own, one that he believes will inspire respect. Despite his not having the means to afford such a collection, he goes about finding a way to build his own collection anyway. He steals from rare book dealers and sellers through any means necessary, including by fraud and credit card theft.

Ken Sanders, a book dealer and collector, takes on the task of organizing a way to track stolen books among others in the rare book trade, and it is through him that a pattern emerges and Gilkey finally is caught. The author spends time with both Sanders and Gilkey in an effort to learn more about the rare book trade and the motivations behind book collecting at the height of its passion.

The author writes: "As collectors have often remarked, collecting is like hunger, and having one more books doesn't quench the longing for another." Ah, how well I know that feeling! My own book collection wouldn't merit a glance by the collectors and dealers mentioned in Bartlett's novel. My interest in books is purely for the story rather than it's worth, value and rarity. Still, I have known that hunger all too well upon visiting a bookstore or book fair. Hence why my TBR collection has gotten so far out of control.

I found it most interesting to get a glimpse of Gilkey's reasoning and rationalization for committing the crimes he did. It was scary in some ways: his lack of regard for those he stole from and his feeling of entitlement. As charming as Gilkey seemed to be, I found him rather arrogant and unlikeable. Perhaps my recent experience with thievery plays a part in that? Though I'm not so sure I would feel any differently otherwise.

My heart did go out to the victims of his crimes, and I can imagine how frustrated they must be that book theft isn't taken more seriously. One particular scene in the novel that had me holding my breath was when Gilkey and the author visited one of the rare bookstores Gilkey had stolen from. The tension coming from the pages was palatable.

Allison Hoover Barlett presents her research in a very approachable way. Whether you are a true crime aficionado or a book lover, this is a must read book. Amidst Gilkey and Sanders story is a bit of history about other book thieves and collectors as well as tidbits about the rare book trade. It is a fascinating world.

You can learn more about Allison Hoover Bartlett and her book on the author's website.

Source: This book was a Christmas gift from my husband.

© 2011, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. This was an interesting read, I read it a couple years ago. I really like the cover on it.

  2. You know what would be nice? A nice comprehensive list of books about books! I know this one would be at the top of the pile. I hear about it all the time on the blogs. And for all of us bibliophiles, book theft is a very serious matter!

  3. This sounds different and interesting. I need a good book and might just have to download this one. I gave up on a book lately and then started a new one
    I realized I'd already read. So, your review has piqued my interest. Thanks!

  4. I used to devour true crime books, but haven't read one in a while. I do love books and have a feeling this one would reignite my love of true crime.

  5. I love books about books & avid readers! True crime isn't my forte but I think this piques my interest enough to try it. Nice review :)

  6. I loved this book so much, and just was totally incredulous over Gilkey! he was unbelievable and had the weirdest thought processes that I have ever come across. I also loved the look at rare book collectors, and felt that I would totally be at home with some of those people. Great review on this one. I am glad to hear that you really liked this one!

  7. This sounds like a rather different book and good. I admit I'm interested to add it to my wish list.

  8. I almost picked this up at the library one time!! Will have to make sure I do one day..thanks for a great review!

  9. I'd been iffy on reading this until it was excerpted for the e-mail book club a month or two ago - a week of exposure to it really got me interested. Your opinion is also influential - I'll probably be getting a copy for myself. Thanks, Webdy!

  10. I really want to read this one! I love books where actual books are a major theme.

  11. I just happen to have a copy of this one (also . . . it's so nice to hear I'm not the only person who has a serious problem with the quantity of books in her house, btw) and was wondering what it's about and how I ended up with it, a couple days ago, as I glanced across one of the many piles in my house. Glad to hear it's so good!

    I'm late reading posts, so the rest of this comment is in the wrong place but I just wanted to say I'm so glad you're okay. Your experience with someone trying to kick down your door while you were at home had to have been terrifying. We were robbed when I was in my 9th month of pregnancy with my now-26-year-old and I can tell you that you never really do feel safe after someone's invaded your home. I'm a little OCD about locking my house, for one thing. It's habitual, but if I don't remember locking the door I'll sometimes turn around and drive home to double-check, even though I know that I've almost undoubtedly locked the house (and, like you, our door -- we were in a Tulsa apartment, at the time -- was simply knocked down so it's not like locking necessarily works).

    As to the reading slump -- wow, best reasons I've ever heard of to have trouble reading! I hope your birth experience is a safe and happy one and you find a new home quickly. I'll be thinking about you and sending positive vibes (and prayers).

  12. I do hope those of you who haven't read it will get a chance. It's such an interesting story. I'm really curious about what Gilkey is up to now.

    Thanks for your great comments!

    Nancy - Thank you for your kind words. I've been a bit OCD about the doors being locked all my life, so I know what that's like. I go around locking the doors behind people, it's so bad. Growing up, my dad would get mad because I'd end up locking him out of the house without realizing it! And the running joke at my folk's house is that you know Wendy's here because the doors are all locked! LOL

  13. I saw this author talk about this book on Book TV some months ago. She was really interesting to listen to so I'm not surprised that the book is good too. I have it on my shelves and will get around to reading it one of these days.

  14. Now here's another book to add to my wish list. I like the premise and haven't been reading true crimes for a while.

  15. This just sounds like such a fascinating, bibliophilic read! Gotta get it.

  16. Nope, I don't think your recent experience with thievery was the sole reason to be appalled by Gilkey's behavior. Although it certainly may have exacerbated it. I just found him to be creepy and was astonished by his rationalizing.

  17. I have this book on my nightstand pile and look forward to reading it. I hope to soon!

    What lengths people go to for the things they love and want to have. sheesh!

    I'm glad to know you enjoyed it.
    ~ Amy


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