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A rare book thief

Created date

March 23rd, 2010

John Gilkey has dreams of building an empire, not of railroads or real estate, but of rare books. There s just one problem, he can t afford them. Gilkey, however, doesn t let this small detail stand in his way, and as author Allison Hoover Bartlett beautifully demonstrates in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Riverhead, 2009), he is willing to do anything to get them, even if it means stealing. Unsavory obsession Throughout this story, Bartlett exposes the darker side of book collecting, chronicling Gilkey s career as a thief and book detective Ken Sanders crusade to stop him. It s a world where passion quickly turns into obsession, and books as objects are more valuable than the contents of their pages. Still, Gilkey is not the romantic, safe-cracking villain that one might expect from the dust jacket s fedora-brimmed silhouette, but rather your quintessential nerd in khakis and cheap sneakers who orders $5,000 books using payphones and stolen credit card numbers. Likewise, the burly, long-bearded Sanders is hardly a Basil Rathbone or Humphrey Bogart, preferring Hawaiian shirts to smoking jackets and trench coats. But the book is no less fascinating for it, as it tells a story deeply rooted in psychology. Bartlett, who clearly has an ear for prose, neatly ties together matters of impulse, motive, and the consequences of obsession and theft, while occasionally giving the reader glimpses of the healthier and more legitimate side of book collecting. True character exposed The bulk of the story, however, shows how Gilkey manages to rob more than a dozen dealers of roughly $100,000 in rare books books he doesn t even read. Instead, they are mere objects, the means to an end that is Gilkey s notion of wealth and power. The man who calls a three-room apartment home fancies himself a pipe-smoking intellectual living comfortably in a Victorian mansion. The rare books that he steals, with their gilt spines and leather binding, in his mind, bring him closer to this image. Besides the smooth writing style with which she lays this out for the reader, Bartlett deserves praise for her willingness to take a risk. The unusual danger of having to consort with a known thief to write this book is no small thing. Though some of her work involved the usual trips to libraries and book fairs, there were also visits to the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., where Gilkey was doing time for check fraud, as well as meetings with him outside of prison. While listening to his confessions, Bartlett struggles with the fine line between journalism and complicity, voicing moral concerns that only highlight the fact that Gilkey has none at all. His sense of right and wrong, as Bartlett portrays it, is purely selfish, and the motive behind his criminal deeds, one of the story s great ironies. Gilkey wants a library of books that he can flaunt, one that will bring him acceptance among the rich, powerful, and sophisticated. To show it to anyone else, will only land him behind bars.