The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsessionby Allison Hoover Bartlett
In telling the true story of book thief John Charles Gilkey and the man who was driven to capture him, Journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett explores the larger history of book passion, collection, and theft through the ages.See more details below
In telling the true story of book thief John Charles Gilkey and the man who was driven to capture him, Journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett explores the larger history of book passion, collection, and theft through the ages.
Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa
"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
"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
"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
"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
"With its brilliantly observed details, wry humor, and thrilling plot twists, Bartlett's narrative drew me deep into the obsessive world of a book thief and the dealer determined to stop him. It's a captivating cat-and-mouse game and a fascinating exploration of why people are so passionate about books. If you liked The Orchid Thief, you're going to love The Man Who Loved Books Too Much."
Julia Flynn Siler, author of The House of Mondavi
"Bartlett's tale of literary intrigue makes you fall in love with books all over again. From her fascinating descriptions of prized manuscripts to her profile of a man who took an obsession too far, her story will leave you hankering to read more. "
Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land
"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
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
- Age Range:
- 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."
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.
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.
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