Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Allison Hoover Bartlett, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

This engagingly written book centers upon two men: John Gilkey, a well-mannered and breezily unrepentant thief who between 1999-2003 stole rare books, ephemera, and other materials (total value approximately $100,000) from dealers throughout the United States, and Ken Sanders, an iconoclastic child of the 1960s who, in his capacity as security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), played an instrumental role in exposing Gilkey.

It also chronicles Bartlett’s own fascination with the world of rare book collecting, which began when complicated circumstances left in her possession a 17th-century Kräutterbuch (a German book of botanical medicine) that had in all likelihood been stolen. Although Bartlett’s forays into antiquarian book fairs and conversations with dealers and collectors don’t turn her into a collector, she comes to appreciate the value of books as aesthetic and sentimental objects and as tangible signs of the owner’s erudition and refinement.

Bartlett, who repeatedly interviewed Gilkey, quickly discovered that he was keenly attuned to the ability of rare books to impress others: unlike most collectors, who acquire books chiefly to satisfy their own desires, Gilkey wanted to assemble a collection that would serve as evidence of his knowledge and discernment. Although his collecting priorities shifted continually, he focused particularly upon books on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels -- a group of books sure to impress even the most casual observer. He rarely read the books he bought.

She also learned that Gilkey’s desire to assemble an impressive collection was coupled with a deep resentment of dealers, whom he saw as selfishly and unfairly standing between him and his dreams. This feeling was intensified by his initial clashes with dealers and the law: he initially wrote bad checks to obtain coveted books, and the resulting arrests and brief periods of imprisonment left him yearning for revenge against those he saw as having done him wrong. Even after he began using stolen credit card numbers to purchase books via telephone, he occasionally reverted to writing bad checks, and each stint in jail gave him time to think of new ways to obtain books.

At roughly the same time as Gilkey began making use of stolen credit card numbers, Ken Sanders unexpectedly found himself serving as the ABAA’s security chair. Before Sanders took over, members submitted paper theft reports, and the ABAA distributed copies of the reports whenever its next mailing went out -- which might be a full year afterward. Sanders, who for years had battled shoplifters at his Salt Lake City store, created an ABAA security listserv and then goaded the organization into creating a stolen book database and e-mail alert system. He was thus in a prime position to spot the wave of fraudulent telephone purchases targeting ABAA members rare book dealers, first in northern California and then across the nation, and to help set up the 2003 sting that exposed Gilkey as a major book thief.

Security-minded archivists and librarians who read The Man Who Loved Books Too Much will find a wealth of interesting information within its covers:
  • There are sharp divisions within the dealer community. Reputable dealers, many (but by no means all) of whom belong to the ABAA, which has stringent membership requirements, have little use for dealers who don't know the trade or who traffic in stolen goods.
  • Dealers have traditionally been deeply reluctant to report theft: no matter how inventive the thief, dealers often see theft as a sign of failure to exercise appropriate caution and fear the loss of their reputations. Moreover, the police have traditionally refused to take such thefts seriously and the courts have often been reluctant to punish book thieves, who are generally intelligent and well-mannered. As is the case within the archival and library communities, this dealers' attitudes seems to be changing, albeit at a slow pace.
  • Many reputable dealers despise eBay: they see it as a boon to sellers of stolen property, honest but ill-informed dealers who unwittingly misrepresent their goods, and unscrupulous sellers looking to rip off naïve buyers.
  • Although rare book dealers were Gilkey’s prime targets, visits to institutions such as the Huntingdon Library seem to have stoked his desire for books. Moreover, as more and more book dealers learned of his scams, he began stealing dust jackets and, in all likelihood, books from libraries.
  • As Bartlett learned as she attempted to restore the Kräutterbuch to its rightful institutional owner, embarrassment sometimes leads libraries to destroy evidence that a book has vanished from its their shelves. Moreover, in all likelihood, “every rare book is a stolen book”: countless numbers of old and rare books have been stolen, either a few days ago or a few centuries ago.
The ending of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, which highlights Bartlett’s efforts to chronicle Gilkey’s life without altering its course and her discovery that she is indeed a passionate collector -- not of books but of stories -- may fail to satisfy many readers. The book is nonetheless entertaining and full of of interesting digressions about the world of book collecting and book thievery. Anyone interested in books, book collecting, or book theft ought to find it worthwhile.

Rare book dealers and cultural heritage professionals should note that at the time of this writing, John Gilkey is a free man. And he’s still interested in rare books.

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