Fine Books, and the Most Infamous Man Who Stole Them


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

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (September 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594488916
  • John Gilkey… Is there any name that provokes more revulsion amongst those who sell rare books? I don't think so. What a fascinating character to explore in a book-length treatment. I'd read little bits and pieces about him before, being an enthusiast for books about books, but never had I imagined the depth of his utter lack of remorse and sense of entitlement.

    The author herself doesn't collect books. She reads them, and loves them, but owning rare books isn't an interest of hers. That's a plus, allowing her to write this book without prejudice. She's able to write objectively, though with a clear idea of how wrong her subject's actions were. She writes:

    "What makes someone cross the line from admirer to thief, and how fine is that line? I wanted to find out."

    And find out she did, through the thorough investigation required in order to write this book. Not only did her interviews with Gilkey and his victims give her a lot of background on bibliomanes; she also interjects much information about the rare book world in the process – how it operates, how difficult it can be to find specific volumes, how prized these books truly are by legitimate collectors. And, it would seem, by borderline insane people.

    I don't know if Gilkey is technically a sociopath, but there's definitely something wrong with a man who sees himself as entitled to steal rare books. His intention? Partly to make money by selling them, and partly to inspire the image he's a man of exquisite taste. His ideal is to have a home library with showy, expensive books:

    "I like the feeling of having a book worth five or ten grand in my hands. And there's that sense of admiration you're gonna get from other people."

    And later:

    "It's a visual thing, the way they look, all lined up on the shelf."

    It's his feeling of deserving to own books he can't afford that baffles me most. I can't imagine looking at, say, a Ferrari thinking "I deserve that!" I admire it, yes, but there's nothing that makes a person deserve an expensive, material object. Gilkey, on the other hand, feels angry and resentful he doesn't own rare and expensive books, and that others do. Never mind the bookseller is a legitimate businessperson who's gone to a great deal of trouble and expense compiling a collection. Never mind the rare book world is one in which dealers seldom make money. The fact Gilkey can't afford to own every rare book he covets drives him mad. Literally. And, for the dealers who've been swindled:

    "Those books that we "may never see again for the rest of our lives" are more than just beautiful objects, and their physicality makes their contents seem more meaningful, somehow."

    This breaks my book-loving heart.

    As an almost librarian, semi book collector, book reviewer, former bookseller and former owner/operator of a book search service, it sends chills down my spine reading about the many ways in which Gilkey – rather ingeniously, I must add – swindled so many respected booksellers out of so many books. One thing you must say about him, he was/is sharp. That's the scary part. And he's still out there, having served what time the justice system could keep him.

    He makes a fascinating, though disgusting, subject. Learning how he went about stealing – because he was so open with Bartlett in the course of their interviews – is irresistable in the same way as looking at an accident. It compells you, against your better instincts.

    Despite the fact the author isn't smitten by book collecting by the end of this book, she definitely comes to sympathize with the love of obtaining books:

    "I did not succumb to full-blown bibliomania, as I thought I might. I did, however, come to understand more fully the satisfaction of the pursuit. Hunting down treasures for a collection brings its own rewards, but, ultimately even more satisfying, building it as a way of creating a narrative."

    And yes, the hunt is addictive. As one who's been a hunter and collector – though not of books anywhere near this rare – I know the thrill of finding a gem. But mostly, my books are utilitarian objects. I have a few somewhat rare items, and a nice collection of signed and inscribed books, but nothing a man like Gilkey would yearn to get his hands on. My books are mostly for reading, for writing in and highlighting, for enthusing about when I love them, and for donating to my library when I've had my fill. As for the impulse to own fine books? Sure, I'd love that. So would many bibliophiles, but we content ourselves with looking at them when we can, marvelling at their beauty. My idea of heaven would be the sort of library Gilkey would covet. But in the meantime, we true book lovers are happy just knowing there's a wealth of wonderful books out there, and hope someone's taking care of those which are rare. For us, that's as far as it goes. And that's enough.

    2 thoughts on “Fine Books, and the Most Infamous Man Who Stole Them

    1. There’s something about collecting that lends itself to obsession. It’s the look on the shelf, and the sense of completion, but also the thrill of the chase and the joy of the find.
      I guess stealing the books could be part of it, too. Is there such a thing as a bibliopath?


    2. There are bibliomaniacs. That’s pretty close.
      I have a lust for collecting older editions of Modern Library edition books, the ones with the illustrated covers. I love my signed books, but even those don’t have the same lustful quality for me. Besides the ML books, I love old books that are inscribed to someone. I have an edition of Bleak House that’s falling apart (it was beautiful in its day), inscribed from a mother to her son, with an inscription of the year she read it to him. I also love old books with things tucked in them. I’ve found turn of the century photos, valentines, notes, etc. I love that.


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