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the man who loved books too much

2 november 2009

Allison Bartlett's recent book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much joins the growing literature about book thieves. Her story of John Gilkey, an irrepressible, unremorseful bandit of rare books, recalls other super-thieves like Ralph Coffman and Stephen Blumberg, who have been the subjects of major feature articles, and of Gilbert Bland, the raider of archives who was the topic of Miles Harvey's notable book The Island of Lost Maps.

And I am pleased to say that Bartlett's book is a welcome addition to this genre. Unlike the other books and articles it resembles, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is very "Orchid Thief": it presents Bartlett, its first-person narrator, as a participant-observer. Bartlett becomes enmeshed in her own tale. She doesn't exactly befriend the thief Gilkey. But by preserving her journalistic objectivity – basically, by not driving him straight over to the local jail every time they meet – she comes to wonder if she's abetting his misdeeds.

Well, actually, I'm pretty sure she's not. Upon publication of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much and its attendant marketing campaign, John Gilkey has just become the most famous book thief in the world. This may be more than he deserves, but it would appear to guarantee that he's stolen his last book. Sometimes the oxygen of publicity is a poisonous gas.

Gilkey, as presented in Bartlett's narrative, makes an unusual contrast to Coffman, Blumberg, or Bland. The motives of these other überthieves ranged from pure bibliophilia to a sense that their loot was better curated by them than by institutions to pure supercilious greed. Gilkey, by contrast, doesn't seem to know anything about books. His literary education would appear to be drawn from a couple of glances at Wikipedia and the occasional peek at a 100-Best list. Gilkey's most salient characteristic, as Bartlett draws him, is the sense that life is unfair to people without money. Rather than think globally, though, Gilkey behaves like a narcissistic Robin Hood: he robs from the rich and he gives to himself.

Stephen Blumberg notoriously took his thefts out of circulation, packing his small house in Iowa top to bottom with stolen books. Gilkey similarly needed several caches to store his pilferings. But he was restless and, frankly, a bit inept: he couldn't resist flipping the books he'd gotten for no money down back to the same bookselling community he'd swiped them from. These antics, plus his increasingly familiar MO (call up, give a stolen credit-card number, then pick up the book as the anonymous agent of the "purchaser") drew the attention of Ken Sanders, the antiquarian booksellers' chosen watchdog.

So the plot of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much becomes The Orchid Thief with two LaRoches: or rather, the LaRoche of Susan Orlean's classic book, split into good and bad angels. If Bartlett's book has a flaw, it's in channeling Orlean so effectively that she tries to see some charm in Gilkey and some craziness in Sanders. But in the last analysis, both she and the reader leave the book revulsed by Gilkey. And not even so much because he's a thief, but because he's an ignorant thief. He's like an art thief who cuts masterpieces out of frames, rolls them up behind his sofa, and tries to fence them at flea markets, running a line of ill-informed patter around his amateurish schemes. He really comes across as the man who didn't love books enough.

Bartlett, Allison Hoover. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The true story of a thief, a detective, and a world of literary obsession. New York: Riverhead, 2009.