Bookstores and libraries are magical places, inviting us to discover new reading adventures—new authors, new genres, new ideas. While the pleasures of the virtual book world (blogs like this one, Good Reads, Library Thing) are undeniable, I sincerely hope that physical book spaces survive and thrive for eons to come. I found The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession earlier this fall, browsing the aisles at the always enchanting Harvard Coop.
Allison Hoover Bartlett tells the captivating story of master book thief John Gilkey from the most intimate of perspectives. She thoughtfully and thoroughly chronicles his outrageous book crimes and eventual capture, interviewing him in depth—in prison and after his release—and accompanying him as he essentially cases a rare book store. She also follows the extraordinary efforts of rare book dealer and “self-styled sleuth” Ken Sanders, who successfully identified Gilkey as the perpetrator of a number of stunning thefts.
Bartlett weaves Gilkey’s and Sander’s stories into a much broader examination of book theft and bibliomania: when the love of books tips into obsession. Her research begins, of course, with a book. One of Bartlett’s friends inherits a rare seventeenth-century botanical book, a Kräutterbuch; she determines that somewhere in its past, the book had most likely been stolen. And then Bartlett hears more tales about book thieves: “thieves who were scholars, thieves who were clergymen, thieves who stole for profit and . . . smitten thieves who stole purely for the love of books.” Interviewing dealers, attending antiquarian book fairs, visiting book collections, Bartlett uncovers layers of devotion beyond the simple act of reading.
The difference between a person who appreciates books, even loves them, and a collector is not only degrees of affection, I realized. For the former, the bookshelf is a kind of memoir: there are my childhood books, my college books, my favorite novels, my inexplicable choices. Many matchmaking . . . websites offer a place for members to list what they’re reading for just this reason: books can reveal a lot about a person. This particularly true of the collector, for whom the bookshelf is a reflection not just of what he has read but profoundly of who he is: ‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they can come alive in him; it is he comes alive in them,’ wrote cultural critic Walter Benjamin.
This is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read all year—so good that I rationed the final chapters as long as I could (and I’ve still saved four pages for after this post). Bartlett makes so many interesting observations about the unique pleasures of reading, owning, collecting, and coveting books, I found myself underlining sentences and dog-earing pages. After so much time with so many obsessives, Bartlett even half-wonders, half-worries if she’ll eventually become book-crazed herself.
Not to fear. As a writer, Bartlett’s far more interested in collecting stories, and she’s done an excellent job presenting her collection here.