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Book Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

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Hi, my name is Fitz and I’m a bibliophile. Yes, that’s right — I love books. My wife can attest to this fact. We moved more boxes of books when we moved from Arizona to Colorado than any other item. And I’m not alone. My Dad collects books. My Grandmother collected books. It seems to be in my genes. But I buy my books. I don’t steal them.

The story Allison Bartlett tells of John Gilkey makes me feel relatively normal in comparison. Gilkey loves books, too. But he doesn’t have the money to pay for them, so writes bad checks or steals credit card receipts from those more fortunate and defrauds the credit card companies. His sense of morality and self-entitlement are seriously warped. Between the late 90s and early 2000s, Gilkey stole more than $100,000 worth of rare books and served jail time for bad checks and credit card fraud.

In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, the main thread is Bartlett’s own investigation into Gilkey’s story, book theft and the world of book collectors and sellers. But Bartlett also weaves in vignettes from her investigation, including one from Winston Churchill, another from a 19th-century monk, and various stories about collectors, thieves and booksellers from around the globe.

The way Bartlett writes herself into the story provides us an entry point into this world of books. It’s through her eyes we see Gilkey, first in jail and then out and prowling California bookstores. We meet Ken Sanders, bookseller turned book detective or “bibliodick,” who helps booksellers and the police track down stolen goods and capture thieves. And we see the love of books by both men and the budding collector in Bartlett rise to the surface as she learns more and more.

These are real stories about real people, and that alone would make them compelling enough for me. But Bartlett’s dedication to the task, documenting every little thing — down to remembering as much as she could while interviewing Gilkey in jail because they wouldn’t allow her to take a pencil or paper into the facility — really brought me into the story. I don’t know that I would have had the guts to go into a prison to interview someone, let alone deal with the many frustrating experiences she finds herself enduring to get a complete picture of these people.

Beyond the writing, which was marvelous, I have to mention the physicality of the book itself. I know many people prefer paperback books because they’re lighter, easier to carry around, and are generally less expensive than their hardcover bretheren. But I am a hardback kind of guy. There’s something about the heft of a hardback book and the quality of paper that has attracted me ever since I set foot in a library as a child. So to see The Man Who Loved Books Too Much bound so beautifully just made me smile.

The pages are bound such that the edges of the pages are not cut evenly, which provides a tactile and visual cue that few current hardbacks have. I haven’t seen that style of binding since some of the Anne Rice novels of the mid-90s, and I absolutely adore it.

If you are interested in books from a collectors point of view or simply want to read a great story, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett provides enough crunch on a number of levels — from the real-world characters to the writing and the binding — this is a book for book lovers. Be sure to check it out at your local library or bookseller!

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About Fitz

Fitz is a software engineer and writer who lives in Colorado Springs, CO, with his family and pets, trying to survive the chaos!