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

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

3.7 85
by Allison Hoover Bartlett

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In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, a compelling narrative set within the strange and genteel world of rare-book collecting: the true story of an infamous book thief, his victims, and the man determined to catch him.

Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey


In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, a compelling narrative set within the strange and genteel world of rare-book collecting: the true story of an infamous book thief, his victims, and the man determined to catch him.

Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey steals purely for the love of books. In an attempt to understand him better, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged herself into the world of book lust and discovered just how dangerous it can be.

John Gilkey is an obsessed, unrepentant book thief who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare books from book fairs, stores, and libraries around the country. Ken Sanders is the self-appointed "bibliodick" (book dealer with a penchant for detective work) driven to catch him. Bartlett befriended both outlandish characters and found herself caught in the middle of efforts to recover hidden treasure. With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, she has woven this entertaining cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his dirtiest crimes, where he stashed the loot, and how Sanders ultimately caught him but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them. Immersing the reader in a rich, wide world of literary obsession, Bartlett looks at the history of book passion, collection, and theft through the ages, to examine the craving that makes some people willing to stop at nothing to possess the books they love.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
For book lovers everywhere, there's nothing more pleasing than to hold a treasured book, to inhale its scent, to caress its pages. A home library reveals much about one's life, and avid readers can talk for hours about the titles, authors, and characters that changed their view of the world. Books are much more than objects that deliver content. Collected, savored, and loved, they shape identity, and readers have a rich and complex relationship with their books.

Rare books hold even more power, providing a physical link to the past. Those who acquire a centuries-old manuscript or a signed first edition know their place in the chain of possession of a valuable artifact. For John Charles Gilkey, a man enthralled with books and aware of how they might express his ideal self, this relationship turned dark as he stole hundreds of thousands of books from rare-book dealers across the country. Bartlett's debut tells Gilkey's story, and the story of Ken Sanders, a book dealer with a penchant for detective work, who caught him.

At once a book about passion, collection, and theft through the ages, as well as an intimate portrait of one of the most successful book thieves in history, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much takes readers inside a world of literary obsession.
(Holiday 2009 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
In the late 1990s, John Gilkey stole his way through a significant number of expensive antiquarian book collections. Ken Sanders, a book collector and security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, noticed the pattern of thefts and began pursuing Gilkey, whose obsession with his precious old books led him to commit a flurry of other crimes—stealing credit cards and forging checks. Bartlett opens up the quirky world of book collecting fanatics with respect but occasionally too much adulation—a perspective that Judith Brackley is guilty of in her more effusive moments. But on the whole, Brackley's enthusiasm is welcome; she excels when exploring the minutiae and arcana of the book collecting subculture and executes the male voices well, with a clear distinction and depth. A Riverhead hardcover (Reviews, July 27). (Jan.)
Library Journal
Rare bookstore owner Ken Saunders relishes catching book thieves, and his favorite target is John Gilkey, a repeat offender who has spent multiple stints in jail for using stolen credit card numbers and bad checks to purchase books estimated to be worth together more than $100,000. In this intriguing account, journalist Bartlett takes readers behind the scenes at antiquarian book fairs and rare bookstores, where sellers are always on the lookout for thieves. Bartlett first meets Gilkey when he is serving time near San Francisco. Over several meetings, Gilkey explains that he feels he builds his image through books, proving himself a man of taste, knowledge, and affluence. VERDICT This excellent tale of people's intimate, complex, and sometimes dangerous relationships to books will be relished by readers, writers, and collectors who are passionate about books as well as fans of true crime stories. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/09.]—Joyce Sparrow, JWB Children's Svcs. Council, Clearwater, FL
Kirkus Reviews
A Janet Malcolm-style reflection on the ramifications of a reporter's interaction with a criminal, in this case one with a bibliomania shared by the antiquarian book dealer pursuing him. Over four years, John Charles Gilkey pilfered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare books, often with credit-card numbers obtained from his part-time job at Saks Fifth Avenue. As freelance journalist Bartlett points out, antiquarian-book theft occurs more frequently than that of fine art. Rather than advertise a theft that would inflame fears of lax security, dealers often prefer to stay quiet about losses. Gilkey's passion-but not his larcenous instinct-was shared by Ken Sanders, a rare-book dealer and volunteer security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, who doggedly tracked the con man, sometimes at the expense of his own business. Sanders is part of a profession often composed of obsessives who do the work as a labor of love, barely making ends meet. Though she misses a few aspects of the business-e.g., does the Internet secure or tighten dealers' control over their collections?-Bartlett is adept at explaining the mindset required for this trade. But as she interviews Gilkey and accompanies him on a few of his rounds, she finds herself asking questions about her project. Is she giving this narcissist attention that his crimes don't merit? Is she responsible for reporting his crimes to police and unsuspecting book dealers? Many readers will disagree that Gilkey had "come to seem a happy man with goals, ambition, and some measure of success," while supporting the opposite conclusion, that he was "greedy, selfish, criminal."Not only a "cautionary tale for those whoplan to deal in rare books in the future," but a demonstration of how a seasoned reporter can disregard the ethics of objectivity.
From the Publisher
"[Brackley's] soft voice, often near a toned whisper, adds the right atmosphere to a biography of a creepy man and a reporter's long search for his motive." ---AudioFile

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Penguin Publishing Group
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18 Years

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 9, "Brick Row"

A couple of months after Gilkey's 2005 release from prison, I met him in front of 49 Geary Street, a building that houses several art galleries and rare book stores, in San Francisco. It was a September morning and he wore a bright white sweatshirt, pleated khakis, his beige leather sneakers, and the PGA baseball cap. He held a folder, on top of which lay a handwritten, numbered list, his to-do list for the day.

"So, how do you want to do this?" he asked.

The week before, he had agreed to let me tag along with him on one of his scouting trips, to learn how he selects books. I had suggested going to Goodwill, a frequent haunt of his now that he was persona non grata in most San Francisco rare book shops. Gilkey, though, wanted to take me to Brick Row, from which he stole The Mayor of Casterbridge. I tried to mask my disbelief and hoped he would think of another place.

"Are you sure?" I asked. "Wouldn't Goodwill work? Or, if not that, aren't there any other stores you can think of?"

Probably sensing my unease, he hesitated. "Maybe they'll recognize me," he said, but reconsidered. "On second thought, it won't be a problem."

At home, I e-mailed Sanders for his opinion: Would the owner, John Crichton, whom I had not yet met, be upset or angry that I'd knowingly accompanied a rare book thief into his store? I didn't relish dealing with the wrath of one of Gilkey's victims, however peripherally.

"Crichton's a good guy," Sanders assured me and gave me the impression that, as Gilkey had said, it wouldn't be a problem.

I was still wary, but too curious to walk away from an opportunity to see Gilkey in his element. What sort of person returns to the scene of his crime? So far, I had come to know Gilkey only through our private conversations. I still had no idea how he behaved out in the world, especially his idealized rare book world. He shared many characteristics of other collectors, but his thieving set him apart in ways that still confounded me—was he amoral or mentally ill? How are such lines drawn, anyway? Accompanying Gilkey to Brick Row was an irresistible chance to be an eyewitness. Also, I had heard that the shop was well regarded among rare book collectors, and I wanted to see it firsthand.

Standing on the sidewalk in front of Brick Row, Gilkey said he would show me what he typically looks for and how he goes about it.

He did not appear to be apprehensive. I, on the other hand, was all nerves. I had no idea what Crichton might do when we walked in. This, at the very least, was going to be awkward...

Inside Brick Row, natural light streamed through the windows, illuminating books sitting in cases along every wall and under windows, and on a graceful arc of shelves that ran through the middle of the shop. It was a quiet refuge from the city streets below, and if you ignored the computer and phone on Crichton's heavy, oak desk, it could be a nineteenth-century bookshop. Thousands of majestic leather-bound books, many with gold lettering, caught the light as I walked by. Given Gilkey's Victorian library fantasies, I could see why he favored this shop, why he chose to bring me there. Unlike Sanders's shop in Salt Lake City, Brick Row was tidy and appeared highly ordered. I got the sense that only serious collectors would venture inside, in contrast to Sanders's shop, where collectors mingled with people in search of a good used paperback (he offered a selection at the back of the store). The doors of the locked bookcases on the right-hand wall near the entrance had metal screens in a crosshatch pattern that made deciphering titles a challenge. These cases contained some of Crichton's more valuable books. A filmmaker would do well to use Brick Row as a set for a gentleman's fine library. "More classier feel than some of the other bookstores that just rack them up in average bookcases," is how Gilkey had described it.

Crichton spoke from behind his desk. "May I help you?"

His question seemed to ask much more. He was looking hard at Gilkey.

"I'm not here to buy anything," said Gilkey congenially, "just to look around, if that's okay. We're just here to look."

No answer.

Crichton stood facing us. He was in his fifties with white hair, a ruddy complexion, and clear blue eyes. He had an assured air and seemed to be the kind of person who rarely had the wool pulled over his eyes.

Gilkey referred to his list of the Modern Library's "100 Best Novels," and explained to me how he often looks for books on it. He pointed to the name Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"Do you have any Hawthorne?" Gilkey asked Crichton.

Crichton answered curtly, "No."

"I know he has one," Gilkey whispered to me.

His comment was a hint at his antagonism toward dealers, which he had made plain in our prior meetings. He'd argued that there was, in fact, widespread fraud among rare book sellers, fraud that made him not only blameless, but also a victim.

One example Gilkey had cited was rebinding. Dealers, he explained, would remove the cover and title page from a second or later edition of a book, and then rebind it with a title page from a first edition that was in poor condition.

"They make it look like a first edition, first printing," he said. "That's part of the fraud they do. That's actually legal."

Later, I learned that there was nothing legal about this practice, but that it was not uncommon. The more expensive the book, the more likely it is that someone may have tampered with the binding. Such fraud is hardly new. In the eighteenth century, for example, facsimiles of pages, or "leaves," of ancient texts were sometimes created by hand and to near perfect effect. Of course, these efforts did not always go undetected, particularly when the pages were printed on eighteenth-century paper with an identifiable watermark. Even now, dealers come across pages of books that have been washed to give them a uniform appearance. Reputable dealers judiciously examine books for telltale signs of rebinding, but there are less upstanding dealers who don't.

As we inched down Brick Row's bookshelves, Gilkey pointed to another book on his list, "Kurt Vonnegut," he said. "I'd like something from him, too. And D. H. Lawrence," he said. "He's also good."

Crichton looked stunned and turned his back to us, then turned around again to face Gilkey. A few seconds later, while Gilkey was explaining to me which books he might like to look for, Crichton asked, "What's your name?"


John—as though Crichton would be satisfied with a first name! I looked down at my notes while my heartbeat threatened to drown out everything around me.

"John what?"


Crichton waited a moment, glanced down at his desk, then looked up. He didn't take his eyes off us as Gilkey pointed to various books and whispered, as one does in a library or museum, informing me about additional authors he was interested in: Vladimir Nabokov, Willa Cather. He commented that he stays away from bibles.

"And who are you?" Crichton asked me.

What People are Saying About This

Erik Larson
"As a rule I approach unsolicited galleys with the same degree of delight that I reserve for root canals. This book surprised me. I read the first paragraph and was drawn in, not so much by the subject matter as by the author's cozy, quiet style, evocative of the work of Dava Sobel and Janet Malcolm. I found the narrative compelling, and I loved the inside stories about old books."--(Erik Larson, bestselling author of The Devil and the White City)
Lynn H. Nicholas
"In this great read about the collector's obsession gone wrong, Ms. Bartlett gives us fascinating glimpses of the rare book world, the criminal mind and the limits of journalistic involvement. Anyone who has trouble passing a used bookstore without going in will love this book."--(Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa)
Michael Dirda
"John Gilkey wanted to own a rich-man's library in the worst way, and was soon acquiring expensive first editions in the very worst way of all: theft. Allison Hoover Bartlett's "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" is the enthralling account of a gently mad con artist and his fraudulent credit-card scams, but it's also a meditation on the urge to collect and a terrific introduction to the close-knit, swashbuckling world of antiquarian book dealers."--(Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of Classics for Pleasure and the memoir An Open Book)
Larry McMurtry
"Allison Hoover Bartlett has written a meticulous and fascinating book about a serial bookthief and the persistent sleuth who dogged him for years and finally caught him. It will be especially gripping for those of us who trade in antiquarian books, who owe much to Ken Sanders's persistence. A fine read."--(Larry McMurtry, bestselling author of Books: A Memoir and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove)
From the Publisher
"[Brackley's] soft voice, often near a toned whisper, adds the right atmosphere to a biography of a creepy man and a reporter's long search for his motive." —-AudioFile
Nicholas A. Basbanes
"Hats off to Allison Bartlett for a splendid contribution to the literature of bibliophilia/bibliomania, the John Gilkey-Ken 'bibliodick' Sanders story is one that cried out to be told, and she has accomplished it with style and substance. Very nicely done."--(Nicholas A. Basbanes, author of A Gentle Madness)
Simon Worrall
"A fascinating journey into a strange, obsessive world where a love for books can sometimes become a fatal attraction."--(Simon Worrall, author of The Poet and the Murderer)

Meet the Author

Allison Hoover Bartlett's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and other publications. Her original article on John Gilkey was included in The Best American Crime Reporting 2007.

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The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 85 reviews.
Sabin More than 1 year ago
The author does a wonderful job of combining the stories of the theif and the his victims. The story flows and I couldn't stop myself from reading another few pages, and then another few pages before bed to see what was happening next. Anyone who loves to read books,and enjoys seeing their shelves full of books, should buy this book and will enjoy it.
bridget3420 More than 1 year ago
Stealing books is more common than stealing art work. John is an obsessed reader who loves books so much that he steals them for his own personal pleasure. He does not sell the book to the highest bidder. Instead he adds them to his collection and files them away in his heart. Soon his obsession overcomes him in a possessive nature. He must have them all! Ken is book dealer who also has a talent for putting together clues. He sets his sights on John and his precious book collection. Who will come out on top? This is a must read for any book lover. It has a little bit of everything - mystery, suspense and it's wickedly funny. It almost makes me want to stop blogging and hunt down some rare books of my own. Luckily I have a wild imagination, so hunting down rare books actually means cracking this book open and reading it again.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
You don't have to be a bibliophile to enjoy this book because it offers suspense, two of the most eccentric characters you're apt to find, humor, and an insider's look at a little known business. In all probability when we think of major crime, heists, robberies, we think of banks being held up, proceless art works stolen or rare jewel collections purloined. As author Bartlett discovered there quite an illegal traffic in rare books, very pricey ones, say the first trade edition of The Tales of Peter Rabbit valued at $15,000 or a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone going for $30,000. As Bartlett began to look and learn about the world of books she became fascinated by two people. The first, John Charles Gilkey, is a very clever fellow who has stolen rare books across America. What is intriguing about Gilkey is not his wiliness as a thief but the fact that he stole not to make money but to have the books in his collection. One can easily say it was an obsession. The second interesting man in Bartlett's sights was rare book dealer Ken Sanders who worked as the volunteer security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. Before long he found himself concentrating less on his business and more on finding Gilkey and bringing him to justice. The story of their cat-and-mouse game rivals going on a fast track with James Bond. Evidently, we have little to fear from digital books as long as there are rabid collectors of what is in reality an ordinary object. It's been going on since Euripides (400 B.C.) who was an object of ridicule because of his desire for books. Some time later Cicero is quoted as saying he was "saving up all my little income" to be put toward his collection. Bartlett has crafted an absorbing true story that takes many of us into a world of we never knew existed. Enjoy! - Gail Cooke
Chaunticleer More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating psychological exploration into the mind of a man who could not stop stealing rare books for his collection. It also explores the sometimes thin division between passion and obsession.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A rather well written book -- I found it quite enlightening and informative about rare books, their collectors and what drives them. It is hard to put the book down. However, my expectation from the book, from its title and brief description on its dust jacket, was that the main character of the book was an intellectual, an interesting personality who had a profound love for books even if he stole them. The main character is far from being an intellectual. His reasons for collecting (stealing) rare books are too shallow -- he was inspired by the wealthy and prestigious owning impressive libraries in the movies that he had watched in his childhood. I did not find him interesting at all. He is an ordinary criminal who happens to be stealing rare books. Overall, the book is an extended magazine article about a true story. It does not otherwise touch the reader in any way nor invoke any emotion because the main character is so uninteresting.
Momma_Hunt More than 1 year ago
This true story is a great read for anyone who loves books. This story follows our author through her introduction to the book collecting world and one of the world's largest bad guys-John Gilkey. The story follows Bartlett as she learns the ropes of the collecting world and her interactions with a very active book thief Gilkey. There is a great parallel between Bartlett's connection to some of the greatest collectors and sellers of fine books and to an amazing book thief. I really enjoyed this book because of the look it gave me into the world of book collecting. I never knew that book collecting was such serious business and that thieves like Gilkey were a part of this world. I also loved how Bartlett gave us an in depth look into the mind of this thief. This look allowed us to see what people think about when they are obsessed about something, book collecting in Gilkey's case. Although I really did enjoy this book it might not be for everything. I think someone who does not love books as much as I do might not enjoy the detailed looks into the collecting world that Bartlett gives. An "outsider" if you will, might find the book collecting details unnecessary or overdone. Again, personally I enjoyed this part of the book, but not everyone might. Overall I would suggest this book to my many book loving friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really didn't like this book. I felt like it was a guide on how to committ this kind of crime and get away with it. The author attempted to walk the fine line between the dealers and this criminal and she failed. She in a way glorified the behavior. It was an easy read and I was excited when this was selected by the book club I belong to but was very disappointed.
Tunguz More than 1 year ago
Those of us whose lives revolve around the books that we read can be accused of suffering form bibliophilia. Taken to the extreme, the obsessive love of books and everything book-related can become a bibliomania. True bibliomaniacs appreciate books not only for their textual and intellectual content. For them, the physical embodiment of the book is of an equal, if not higher, importance. Most people can appreciate the high artisan value of a fine, hardbound, artfully printed and decorated book. But for bibliomaniacs the admiration for a book in its physical embodiment has an almost religious, sacramental, quality. This is especially the case for those who are involved in the high-art of rare book collecting. In “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” Allison Bartlett explores the life and book obsession, often with criminal consequences, of John Gilkey, a notorious rare-book thief. Bartlett is a skilled narrator with a keen journalistic eye for detail and an aptitude for getting the voice of many of her protagonists come clearly in her writing. This book has opened my eyes to the whole world of rare and antique book trading and collecting. It is full of valuable information that is not easy to find, especially not through public statements and advertising outlets. After reading it, I have a new appreciation for the whole art of book publishing and printing, and have gained insights into the criteria that are used for evaluating various editions of book. I may never come across a valuable find on a garage sale or in a Goodwill store, but if I ever do I’ll know what to look for. “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” is also an interesting journey into the peculiarity of the rare books and artifacts crime scene. From the years of watching crime dramas and documentaries, I had thought that I have a decent grasp of the criminal justice system works, but after reading this book I realized that the real world is much more complicated and muddled than any TV show, no matter how “realistic”, will ever be able to elicit. My single biggest issue with this book concerns the portrayal of John Gilkey. I fear that Bartlett has seriously misread or misrepresented the nature of Gilkey’s flawed personality. Far from being a tragic bibliomaniacal hero with a major character defect, Gilkey comes across as someone who suffers from a very simply explainable psychological disorder. All the characteristics that Gilkey exhibits – narcissism, sense of grievance, chronic inability to distinguish the right from wrong, failure to form realistic long term goals – are very typical of someone with a psychopathic personality disorder. At no point did I get an impression that there is any serious intellectual depth to Gilkey’s pursuit of rare and masterful books. He seems to be able to drop all the big words and smooth-talk his interlocutors into believing that there is substance behind what he is saying, but when you read his words you can’t but feel that they are just a shell. This kind of charm and superficial confidence is another one of the psychopathic traits, and it seems that Bartlett has been taken by him. Gilkey is not obsessed with books as such, but rather with the intellectual and social prestige that possessing rare books bestows. Calling him “the man who loved books too much” is like calling Hannibal Lecter “the man who loved food too much.” Overall, this is a very interesting story, but not quite what I had expected. I would recommend it to all
MaineMason More than 1 year ago
This book is truly awesome. If your looking for a fast-paced mystery, this is not it. If you are a book lover this is the book for you. I simply loved reading about all the different types of books and how you determine the value. I then went through my own library and discovered I had a first edition of my own. I won't be selling it because it has a lot of sentimental value. Overall - very good book.
LisaDunckley 6 months ago
This book is partially about the notorious book thief John Gilkey, and the bookseller who became obsessed with catching him, Ken Sanders, and partially about the rare book industry in general. Author Allison Bartlett manages to contact John and repeatedly interview him, exploring the mindset of someone who feels it's really not wrong to “acquire” books without paying for them, since he deserves them. Ken Sanders has spent years trying to defeat book thieves in general, and John in particular. He has become an amateur detective and is able to implement safeguards industry wide to prevent theft, as well as alert booksellers all over to the cons practiced by John. One of my favorite things is a book where I learn something—if it's new information that is presented in an engaging fashion, I am riveted—and this book is full of fascinating tidbits about the rare book industry. As a book lover who loves books for the stories and information within, it is engrossing to read about people who spend fortunes to acquire books that they will never read, or rarely even touch. This is the rare nonfiction book that reads like a detective story—and is just as hard to put down.
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lit-in-the-last-frontier More than 1 year ago
This book provided a fascinating glimpse into the world, both past and present, of rare book collecting-beyond simple bibliophilia into the realm of bibliomania, an obsessive state of being where the afflicted will do anything, legal or not, to possess the books they desire. An eclectic mix of collector's and dealer's stories, rare book lore, valuations of various books, and some auto-biographical information, author Allison Bartlett does an excellent job of merging her various elements into a riveting narrative that smoothly carries the reader from tidbit to tidbit. The glue that ties the book together is made up of two main characters: rare book dealer Ken Sanders and thief John Gilkey. Sanders became involved in tracking down book thieves while holding a volunteer security chairmanship in a professional organization. John Gilkey was his biggest nemesis. Bartlett spent over ten years interviewing Gilkey, Sanders, and many others involved in the rare book trade. One added sideline grows out of her narrative-that of journalistic involvement and legality/ethics. In several instances the author was placed in situations with John Gilkey that made her uneasy and left her wondering if she had a legal, and if not legal, then ethical, responsibility to report him to the authorities. Towards the end of her interviews, she fervently hoped that Gilkey would reveal, due to the rapport they had built, where he had stashed his stolen books. She became increasingly conflicted as to which would be of greater value: reporting things he told her or holding out in hopes of his entrusting her with this greater secret, knowing that reporting him to the authorities would destroy any chance of recovering the fruits of his pilfering and returning them to their rightful owners. Definitely a book which has left me wanting to learn more about rare books and the lore that has built up around them!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago