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Book Cover Image: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Title: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession 

Author: Allison Hoover Bartlett

No. of Pages: 274

First Released: September 2009 

Synopsis (Courtesy of B&N): “Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey steals purely for the love of books. In an attempt to understand him better, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged herself into the world of book lust and discovered just how dangerous it can be.

Gilkey is an obsessed, unrepentant book thief who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rare books from book fairs, stores, and libraries around the country. Ken Sanders is the self-appointed “bibliodick” (book dealer with a penchant for detective work) driven to catch him. Bartlett befriended both outlandish characters and found herself caught in the middle of efforts to recover hidden treasure. With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, she has woven this entertaining cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his dirtiest crimes, where he stashed the loot, and how Sanders ultimately caught him but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them. Immersing the reader in a rich, wide world of literary obsession, Bartlett looks at the history of book passion, collection, and theft through the ages, to examine the craving that makes some people willing to stop at nothing to possess the books they love.”

Comments and Critique: An entire book about the love of books, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is equal parts ode to books, specifically rare books, and insight into one man’s psyche.  Mr. Gilkey and Mr. Sanders make for interesting, albeit somewhat stilted, reading.  It is written about a love of books driving one’s actions by someone who truly does love books.  That love makes itself apparent in the loving, almost erotic, way that Ms. Barrett describes her favorite childhood books or viewing some of the rare books she finds.  As she explains it, the love of books is more than visceral.  It includes the experience of reading one and the memories associated with that reading.  I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, and her statement that the experience behind reading is what will keep the written word in print form around forever.

Unfortunately, this book is not without its drawbacks.  Ms. Barrett describes Mr. Gilkey as someone who has found his purpose in life, and even though that purpose may be against the law, it makes him happy and gives his life meaning.  She even tries to compare his life with someone who works in a dead-end job and has nothing in the way of motivation.  It’s an interesting comparison but one that falls short of the truth, in my opinion.  Truly, the title of the book is a misnomer in that Mr. Gilkey does not love books, he loves the IDEA of books.  His entire life has been fabricated around an idea that possessions make a man.  His whole purpose behind stealing books is to build a fabulous library, such as those found in movies or seen when touring historical homes of the fantastically wealthy.  He doesn’t love the books but loves what he thinks they can bring to him – respect, wealth, status in society.   Worse yet, Mr. Gilkey operates under a false sense of entitlement that it is not fair that only a select few can afford the truly wonderful rare books and therefore sets about to personally settle the score by stealing those same books.  It is an interesting, somewhat disturbing philosophy, one that Ms. Barrett hints he learned from his family. 

Mr. Sanders, the hero of the novel, is also interesting.  What is so intriguing is the idea that throughout her research, he continues to distrust Ms. Barrett and her motives.  This distrust makes itself apparent in the rather unflattering light in which she portrays him.  He’s the hero but is not discussed nearly as often as Mr. Gilkey.  At one point in time in the novel, Ms. Barrett mentions her struggle with not making Mr. Gilkey appear more sympathetic than he deserves.  Unfortunately, she does not succeed in this endeavor, as she paints Mr. Sanders in a more unfavorable light than Mr. Gilkey. 

My biggest issue with this book is the author’s actions.  She loses her sense of being an impartial observer as she finds herself drawn to the mystery that is Mr. Gilkey’s motives behind his thievery.  As she starts to rationalize his behavior as well as her own in not going to the authorities when he discusses his crimes with her, she receives his sympathy, which shows very clearly on the page.  I also took issue with Ms. Barrett’s lack of ethics.  While researching this book, Mr. Gilkey did share with her knowledge of several crimes of his, and yet even though she felt uncomfortable about her part in these proceedings to warrant discussing it with lawyers, she does nothing about her continued misgivings.  In this case, she lets the story get in the way of her ethics, and I have major problems with her lack of ethical behavior and impartiality.

Ms. Barrett waffles between telling the story of Ms. Sanders and Mr. Gilkey, often jumping from topic to topic and including her own commentary with very little bridge between the sections.  It makes for very disjointed reading as well as causing difficulties relating to any of the characters on the page.  These negative issues with the book are disappointing because taken as a whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my view into the world of rare book collecting.  I would love to be able to own one or two rare books myself but unlike serious collectors, I would own them to read them.  Even though I was disturbed by the author’s behavior towards Mr. Gilkey and his lack of responsibility for his actions, I would recommend this to any bibliophiles as merely an interesting read from one book lover to another.

Speaking of bibliophiles, Ms. Barrett defines both bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs.  To me, there is such a fine line between the two that the differences are purely personal.  As a book blogger, who devotes her free time to reading, where do we fit in among book lovers?  Have we crossed the threshold to bibliomania or does that word only apply to serious collectors?  Thoughts?

Thank you to Shelf Awareness and Riverhead Books for the opportunity to review this book!

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