Thursday, September 17, 2009

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

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.


  1. Well, you are right - I was immediately attracted to the title! I am glad to hear that the book measures up to the title. I know precious little about book collecting, but I think I find this book quite interesting.

  2. This book looks so interesting! I hope to read it eventually for sure!

  3. This one is sitting on my desk to be reviewed and it keeps calling me to read it before the others I need to do first. I can't wait to get to it!

  4. Good review - I love the title - Makes an impression straight away.

  5. Great review!! I'm so glad you enjoyed this book as much as I did.

    Since reading this book, I've found it impossible to walk past one of those street stands selling used books without searching for that elusive first edition... or walking past an antique store, and looking for that "secret" first collection published by an anonymous Poe.

    While I'm not typically a huge nonfiction fan, Bartlett drew me in the story so well I kept on having to remind myself Gilkey is a deplorable thief and not just the result of the author's imagination and talented hand! Like you said, I found the book to be "conversational and accessible" and thoroughly enjoyable.

    Thanks for a thoughtful review.

    Lydia at Riverhead Books

  6. Thanks for your enthusiastic review! By the way, since you wrote that you'd like to see some photos, I suggest you visit my website:

    All the best,
    AH Bartlett

  7. Just a note to say that I looked at the pictures on Allison's website and anyone else interested in old and rare books should go take a gander too.


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