Journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett describes in her non-fiction debut novel, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, that according to the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, there are five specific profiles for rare book thieves: those who steal for profit; those who steal in anger; the casual thief; and those who steal for their own personal use. Know thine enemy.
Bartlett's real life account of rare book thief John Gilkey and the Utah rare book dealer and self-appointed "bibliodick" Ken Saunders who caught him, will leave book lovers astounded and most likely looking a little closer through garage sale or bargain bin books in the future. Bartlett takes us deep into not only the years that Saunders chased Gilkey around the country while he stole possibly up to $300,000 worth of rare books with stolen credit card numbers, but also into a world where Bibliomania is the main stream, dust jackets are described like beloved children and many would sell their soul for a first edition copy of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.
At times, it's hard not to sympathize with Gilkey and his obsession to own all of the books upon the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Even Bartlett finds herself considering this impulsive behavior while attending a book fair:
"Moirandat left me with the manuscript for a few minutes while he helped a customer. I touched the pages and realized how much I would love to own something like it. This is how it happens, I thought. I could slip these sheets under my sweater and make a dash for the door."
Gilkey, an amiable middle-aged man, was raised in a family where stealing was the ordinary--even from each other. On many of his extravagant splurges courtesy of others' credit card numbers, Gilkey's father was right there with him, picking up the soon-to-be-stolen books and knowingly taking advantage of his son's new wealth.
Some readers may consider Gilkey to be a sociopath, but we found ourselves viewing him more with pity rather than disgust. He wasn't stealing these books to sell on Ebay, or because he had an issue with the seller; he was stealing them to gain entrance into a better world, where rare books would give him power, a highly-regarded persona, and luxury. However, it is this life-long compulsive obsession that not only distorts Gilkey's ideals on reality to extremes, but turns him into a criminal, bouncing him in and out of California jail cells. He becomes expectant of this rich world that he has created in his mind and when he doesn't achieve his grand life plans, like a child, he blames everyone but himself.
"Gilkey said that he didn't like to spend his "own money" on books, and that it wasn't fair that he didn't have enough money to afford all the rare books he wanted. For Gilkey, 'fairness' seemed to be a synonym for 'satisfaction': if he is satisfied, all is deemed fair; if not, it isn't... It took me a few seconds to realize that Gilkey was not joking. He was so calm and polite that statements like these were particularly jolting, bringing into sharp and unnerving focus his skewed sense of what is fair and right and reasonable. Back and forth, as though a pendulum were swinging in and out of his conscience, Gilkey alternated between claiming that he would never commit another book crime, and presenting ideas of how to 'get' more books."Bartlett has dozens of similar conversations with Gilkey throughout the novel, where it seems as if he just cannot wrap his head around the idea of actually how much damage and loss he has created for others during his years of theft. And to be frank, with his sociopathic tendencies and childish "life is not fair" outlook, he may never get it.
We'd highly recommend getting out this weekend to meet Ken Saunders--the rare book dealer who spent years chasing Gilkey and eventually caught him red-handed--and Bartlett, who will be sharing booth 303 at the book fair with Saunders. Maybe John Charles Gilkey will also make an appearance; who can be sure. This is one mystery that may not have a clear cut ending for quite some time to come...