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Book review: ‘The Man Who Looked Books Too Much’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 11, 2009.

http://oceanadesigns.net/sitemap-pt-page-2017-09.xml ManWhoLovesBooks_JKTF.inddThe Man Who Looked Books Too Much
buy Pregabalin Lyrica online By Allison Hoover Bartlett
(Riverhead)

John Gilkey is a convicted thief from California who bought stuff using other people’s credit-card numbers. There’s nothing especially dramatic or shocking about Gilkey’s crimes, although he did figure out some fairly clever ways of getting away with fraud for a while. If Gilkey had stolen something mundane like groceries or office supplies, we wouldn’t be reading a book about him. Ah, but books were the object of Gilkey’s serial pilfering. And not just any books — he stole rare first editions and antiquarian volumes that are worth thousands of dollars.

So what we have here is a book about a guy who steals books, who’s caught by an amateur sleuth who loves books. It sounds like just the thing you’d want to read if you were, well, a person who loves books. However, Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much does not turn out to be a solid addition to the true-crime library.

Bartlett keeps her story moving along at a good pace with clear, plain prose, but the narrative fails to deliver much in the way of actual thrills. She goes to great lengths to probe the motives behind Gilkey’s obsession with stealing books, constantly asking: Why did he do it? And why is he so interested in old books?

Gilkey’s own answers to those questions are not particularly profound. Bartlett senses that he wants to build a collection of old books as a sort of status symbol, so that he can impress people. Paradoxically, Gilkey can’t really impress anyone, since he keeps his stolen books hidden away in secret stashes. Digging deeper for more insights, Bartlett turns to other books about obsessive collectors and book thieves, and she finds a few relevant quotes.

Judging from her footnotes, Bartlett’s research was pretty thin. For example, instead of quoting directly from a 1985 collection of Sigmund Freud’s letters, she relies on a 2006 book that quotes the 1985 book. Bartlett pulls her most interesting details from other recent books about book collecting, especially Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness, which just makes you want to seek out those earlier works. And her footnotes reveal that she relied on interviews to construct the story of Gilkey’s crimes, without citing any police reports or court documents.

The great strength of Bartlett’s reporting is the access she received from Gilkey himself. Her interviews with Gilkey are the most fascinating aspect of this book, revealing a self-deluded man who continually finds ways of rationalizing his crimes. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much eventually turns into an intriguing psychological study of the relationship between the author and her subject. Does Bartlett get too close with Gilkey as she tags along with him on visits to a bookstore he had once robbed? Is it her responsibility to tell the police when Gilkey tells her details of his criminal exploits? Bartlett raises these questions without satisfactorily answering them. She seems to feel queasy about becoming a participant in the story she’s writing about.

In the end, no matter how much Bartlett tries to puff up Gilkey’s book thievery into a weighty topic, the story boils down to some rather obvious traits of human behavior: People like cool stuff. Some people become obsessed with cool stuff. Some people become so obsessed that they steal it. And if the stuff you steal is cool enough, someone just might a book about you.

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Book review: ‘I Shot a Man in Reno’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2008 issue.

http://oceanadesigns.net/images/granite/vyara-gold/vyara-gold.jpg ishot-coverI Shot a Man in Reno
By Graeme Thomson
(Continuum)

A few years ago, the Mekons’ Jon Langford told me about his fascination with old-time folk and country songs about death. He lamented the dearth of death songs on today’s charts. “And now pop music’s essentially sanitized to the point where there’s no drinking, cheating or killing songs on country radio—although the movies are full of fantasy, death and violence,” he said. “A lot of those folk songs were talking about real events. Maybe society is censoring itself. The mainstream cannot deal with this material anymore.”

After that interview, it occurred to me that Langford did not have it quite right. Maybe mainstream Nashville has shoved the murder ballad into the closet, but gangsta rap overflows with violence. And as Graeme Thomson proves with his book, I Shot a Man in Reno (subtitled “A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure”), the Grim Reaper is lurking in just about every genre of popular music. Over the course of this thoughtful essay, Thomson discusses hundreds of death songs. The author of previous books on Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson, here he carefully delineates all the varieties of musical death, from old-fashioned murder ballads to the car-crash sagas of the ’60s and the mortality-obsessed music of heavy-metal and emo bands.

Thomson is a surefooted guide through this musical graveyard. His writing is never dry or academic, but he smartly puts each song into its sociological and psychological context. It’s fascinating to see how concepts of death changed over the decades, as Thompson points out trends such as the explosion of death songs during the 1960s psychedelic era.

It would have been nice if Thomson had lingered longer over some of the significant songs he writes about, rather than flitting so quickly from one tune to another. And while this book is largely a work of interpretation rather than history or journalism, it would benefit from more of the stories behind the songs. Thomson does make excellent use of quotes from some A-list songwriters; he interviewed Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Will Oldham and Nick Cave, and he draws on other sources for remarks from other musicians.

At first, it may seem puzzling that songs on this grim topic have become hits and even popular standards, but Thomson persuasively shows that death very much belongs in pop music. If music is about the human experience, death must be in there, along with everything else. One of Thomson’s sources, Richard Thompson, puts it best in the book’s final chapter, saying, “The obvious thing to say is that a song about death is a song about life.”

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