Saturday, July 24, 2010

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

When I think of the word “bibliophile”, I automatically think of myself. In my apartment are five bookcases filled to the brim with books of every subject and genre. Reading (and now writing) books has been a passion of mine since my family took me to the library on Saturdays when I was a child. The feel of the books piled up in my hands, the smell of the old paper, glue and boards that made the books plus the smell of the library itself still linger with me today. I remember going to the main library when it was located on Peabody and McLean and how it smelled every time I walked through those doors. Libraries and bookstores are my home away from home. Even now, I would much rather spend my money on books than clothing, shoes, jewelry or anything else like that. I have even scraped together change from the bottom of my messenger bag to purchase a book. So yes, I take full claim in calling myself a bibliophile. However, that is where I draw the line. Although I adore my addiction, I would never cross the legal line in obtaining my passion. Others, however, would have no problem in doing such a thing. Take John Gilkey, for example, the subject of Allison Hoover Bartlett’s non-fiction book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. Gilkey was a man who adored books so much that he would steal them from bookstores and book fairs, then turn around and sell some of them to make a profit. He would even go so far as to obtain credit card numbers (back when the numbers were printed on receipt slips) and call in his orders to antiquarian book dealers all over the country, then pick them up claiming he was a “friend” of the person who placed the order. His activities stumped many a book dealer until bookseller Ken Sanders, the “bibliodick” made it his personal mission to track down the thief and deliver an appropriate amount of justice to Gilkey.
While Bartlett conducted research for this novel, she spent a great deal of time speaking to both Sanders and Gilkey, even going so far as to walk with Gilkey into one of the bookstores that he stole from. His reasons for stealing the collectible books were because they were priced too high for the common man to obtain, and that he loved books just that much and it was his right and duty to “acquire” them for his personal library. Sanders, along with other antiquarian book dealers felt otherwise, claiming that although he may have loved books, stealing them was unfair to those who would have obtained the books through legal means, i.e., purchase them with their own money. Even some of the book dealers Bartlett interviewed questioned her own motives in following and speaking to the book thief, wondering if perhaps she was in on the scam as well. Although there has been much debate as to her ethics while gathering research for this novel and if she romanticized Gilkey while building him up more as a passionate lover of books than just a petty thief, Bartlett does a fantastic job in conveying both sides of the book world: those who sell the highly prized books, and those who would do anything to obtain them, both legally and illegally. Bartlett, being a reader herself, reveals the world of collecting books to those on the outside; people who would never consider going to great lengths in obtaining a first edition Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. She even begins to collect books after she receives a highly collectible work from a friend who forgot to return it to the library after years of having it. Although she does not fully plunge into the world of collecting books, she still appears to show an appreciation for it – the passion that both Sanders and Gilkey feel for their books is apparent. When I finished reading the book, I wondered if Gilkey was still out there stealing books for his collection or if perhaps he turned a new leaf and purchased them like everyone else, or if he was behind bars for good. One thing that I know for certain, though, is that once bitten by the bibliophile bug, one stays that way for the rest of their life. Right or wrong, a bibliophile is still a bibliophile, giving into their literary passions to satisfy that endless need, no matter how extreme our passions may drive us.

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