Monday 7 November 2011

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

At the most I consider books to be like romantic flings. They can be too long, often end with me feeling confused, and almost always cost a lot more than they're worth. Yet I know I can't do without them, I have my fair share, and I'll almost certainly acquire some more. Before I lapse too far into an offensive Swiss Tony stereotype, I should note that I of course respect the absolute necessity of books (and romantic flings!). As a history student, I would be an idiot not to. But love? No. To me, books are from where I absorb knowledge, some enjoyment, and, hopefully, a career. I get no pleasure from hunting them down at car-boot sales, seeing them lined up on a shelf, and I certainly do not view mere ownership as a symbol of social position or intellect.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much then is not about me. If it was, it would probably have been titled The Man Who Was Somewhat Indifferent About Books and Working In General. Instead, Allison Hoover Bartlett wisely chose the curious true story of John Charles Gilkey - a man consumed by his insatiable desire to own rare books. Taking place across the USA, Bartlett periodically meets the charming and devious Gilkey as he defrauds bookstores and libraries out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, trying to understand both his motivation and willingness to repeatedly break the law in spite of his many incarcerations. Bartlett balances this tale by also giving a platform to the bookstore owners and bibliophiles affected by Gilkey's deception. Ken Sanders, a book dealer and amateur detective enraged by rare book thieves, features the most prominently as he attempts to track down Gilkey and bring him to justice.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much however is not just a formulaic tale of a passionate detective and his one great unsolved case. Throughout the book Bartlett takes brief sojourns to regale the reader with short and interesting anecdotes of famous book collectors, infamous book thefts, and other book-related stories. It's hard to not be drawn in when reading these asides, and it breaks up what could otherwise be a fairly standard cat-and-mouse chase. Bartlett also ruminates on the nature of obsession throughout the ages, and looks deep into Gilkey's psyche, while also giving the reader an insight into her own relationship with books and collecting.

Though, on occasion, Bartlett's analysis was in danger of lapsing into pseudo-psychology, and I am not sure that Gilkey was as naive of his culpability as she portrays, it is still a read I can highly recommend. Well-researched, based on personal interviews as well as academic sources, and fastidiously written, at no point however is it dry or boring. Every reader of reviews knows that the compliment of 'page-turner' is overused, but in this case it is accurate - I finished the book in two sittings over one weekend. Bartlett does a great job of pulling the reader into a really niche section of society, of which most of us will have no prior knowledge, and reveals it in the most vivid of ways.

Now, where's that stolen credit card? I've just spied a genuine first edition of Crime and Punishment on eBay...