Antiquarian Ken Sanders is a "bibliodick" on the trail of rare book thief John Gilkey in the riveting nonfiction book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. The author does not just tell the story, however, she enters into it, interviewing Gilkey during and after and again about his crime spree. When asked if this was the only time she had lost objectivity, Bartlett responded:
"To be objective, you must be an unbiased observer. But once book thief John Gilkey started confessing crimes to me and discussing thefts he’d like to carry out in the future, I went from being an observer to a participant in the story — so it was impossible to be purely objective. My responses, for better or for worse, could affect the outcome. It was a thorny position to be in."
And if you don't think stealing books should be a punishable crime, you have not priced rare ones lately. Collecting at these levels is a rich man or woman's folly.
The story is enthralling, tracking the thief through book stores and book fairs, from one end of the country to the other. You might even forget this is a story of true crime and think you are reading a novel. It is encouraging to find a veteran journalist who can switch to a long form and create such a lyrical as well as erudite narration. That the story is about books is a bonus for those of us who love books, slightly obsessed bibliophiles.
Despite Bartlett's extensive background as a journalist, she had not interviewed a subject in a prison setting until succumbing to "research rapture" with this project. Her description of visiting Gilkey in the Duel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California, is hilarious. Apparently no one had prepped her on prison protocol. Before entering the inner sanctum, she had to rush back to her car to remove a forbidden underwire bra. By the time she was face-to-face (albeit through Plexiglas) with the inmate, she only wanted the experience to be over. Still, she noticed Gilkey resembled Mr. Rogers of TV children's show fame. How jarring that must have been for a mother!
It is that ability to notice details and changes that contribute to a good journalist's writing. Bartlett's acute attention quickly found incongruities in her subject's revelations over the months she met with him. She even accompanied him to a rare book store he'd stolen from, strolling around under the knowing eye of the owner who recognized Gilkey. The tension and discomfort were practically palpable in the narration.
By the end, the author discovered a single trait shared by the thief, those he stole from and book collectors who would never dream of stealing them: obsession. The bibliodick is both a book dealer and a collector who can't stop buying; and Gilkey can't stop stealing them. By participating in the story, did Bartlett become equally obsessed?