Any self-respecting book lover is going to take one look at this cover and pick the book up. I know when I opened my e-mail and saw what was being offered, I was immediately drawn to it. The good news is that the narrative non-fiction story between the pages was just as appealing as the cover.
With an opening prologue where author Allison Hoover Bartlett is given a beautiful and clearly rare book whose origins she cannot trace despite being told that it was a never returned library book, the reader is immediately plunged into the murky waters of the old and rare book world. Highlighting both John Gilkey, the thief of the title, and Ken Sanders, the man who worked diligently to catch Gilkey and make him pay for the crimes that local police seemed so disinclined to take seriously, this is a fascinating and engrossing peek into what draws people to collect rare books and the lengths some people will go to in order to do so.
Bartlett interviewed many people for this, gaining amazing access to the twisted, unrepentant Gilkey and the driven Sanders. The things that Gilkey admitted to her as far as how he pulled off his steals are boggling enough, but that he felt an entitlement to the books, despite the fact that they belonged to other people, and to this day shows no remorse for having stolen is completely astounding. Bartlett herself seems fascinated by this lack of a conscience in Gilkey but is afraid to push him too far by being judgmental and losing her subject. Sanders' singleminded motivation to catch Gilkey and to offer as much protection to the trade he loves as he can also captures her imagination. Her genuine interest in understanding these two men shines through the book as does her growing understanding of the love of these amazing books that drives people to extremes.
The book is conversational and accessible, not overwhelmed with technical jargon about first editions and rare books that would preclude a general audience. I would have loved to see some photographs of some of the books or perhaps even books unrelated to Gilkey's scams but still beautiful and valuable to give a better idea of the physical appeal of the things, especially since some collectors have no interest in the content of the books but only in the physical copy. The juggling between Gilkey interviews and accounts of Sanders' attempts to make it more difficult for biblio-thieves to function was balanced and interesting. I'm not certain Bartlett ever answers the question of the ultimate appeal of these books but she certainly tries to examine the varied answers. I think most serious readers, whether collectors or not, will find this an appealing and captivating read. I know I certainly did.
Thanks so much to Lydia at Riverhead Books for the opportunity to read and review this one.