This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 11, 2009.
The Man Who Looked Books Too Much
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
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.