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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)
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.)
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
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
“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
“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
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.