Sunday, September 20, 2009

By Allison Hoover Bartlett
Riverhead, $24.95, 288 pages

Judging by the number of individual objects stolen one by one, the world’s busiest thief may be John Gilkey, although his total take doesn’t match a rookie pitcher’s signing bonus or the price of an Old Masters burgher. Day in and day out, he stole rare books, many of them worth five figures, here a “Book of Hours” circa 1480, there an “On the Road,” autographed by Jack Kerouac. Why do we care? Because “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” offers both a galloping foray into the wonky world of the rare-book market and a chronicle of modern crime and punishment.

Allison Hoover Bartlett, a journeyman magazine writer, first stumbled upon the curious story of a “bibliodick,” an amateur sleuth working the old-book beat. Ken Sanders, a Salt Lake City rare-book dealer, had become the volunteer “security chair” for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. Dragging the musty society into the new millennium, he built a database and used e-mail to circulate reports of thievery that proved to be more common than anyone knew.

Purloining rare books, it appears, was a bigger business than lifting fine art, and more hidden because booksellers were loath to report their losses, while cops tended to ignore them. This changed on Mr. Sanders’ watch, as the mental tenacity and memory for detail that made him a successful book trader made him a demon watchdog. As a result of his sleuthing and Internet alarums, Mr. Gilkey would be discovered as the Willie Sutton of book robbers. As a result of that, Ms. Bartlett would pursue an article idea, like a hound after a conspiracy of foxes, chasing them in diverse directions. And as a result of that, she would grow the article into this quixotic and captivating true-crime narrative that comprises a composite portrait of three overlapping personae who all love books: the criminal, the crimestopper and the author.

Mr. Sanders, middle-aged, ponytailed and bearded, is the first to seize our attention by the lapels, like a certain old tar at a wedding. As a boy, he “devoured every book the librarians let him get his hands on, and some they didn’t.” Not allowed to check out books from the adult room, he found ways to read “Frankenstein” anyway. From the start of Ms. Bartlett’s reporting, Mr. Sanders is tutor, mentor and guide, Aristotle to her Dante, as she descends into the terra incognita of bookland. (Then sometimes he clams up and plays Charon instead.)

To mix metaphors in mid-stream — and what’s the fun of writing about libri literati if not to exercise a little license? — Ms. Sanders is the Grand Inquisitor ridding Christendom of the bibliophilic infidel. He “chased these guys down streets and alleys and parking lots. He has taken them to court. He has scared them half to death.” He pursued various miscreants clue by clue, and browbeat cops and prosecutors into giving them their just deserts.

Mr. Gilkey’s case was a hard one to crack because this thief was so New-Age in his method and ubiquitous in his range that at first nobody suspected a one-man crime wave. There seemed to be no pattern to the thefts reported by shops around the country, and no consistent modus operandi by a burglar whose tools included the credit card, checkbook, phonebooth and Internet connection.

Polite and neat, a bit obsequious, Mr. Gilkey clerked in a tony department store where each day he lifted names and numbers from two or three affluent customers’ cards. Systematically surveying rare-book stores on the Net, he would call from a pay phone and chat up the clerk, sounding knowledgeable and saying he was shopping for a gift, something in the $3,000 range, say a Vanity Fair first edition. Offered instead a choice two-volume “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” complete “with brown half morocco by Riviere, marbled sides, gilt decorated and lettered spine,” he would charge it to someone’s valid card. He’d have it mailed to his alias at an address that was actually a hotel, or he’d request the prize wrapped and ready when he stopped by later.

American Express or Visa approved the charge and Mr. Gilkey collected the book. When the card holder got the bill and went through the roof, the card company would cancel the charge and stick the bookstore with the loss, since the bookseller did not have a signed sales slip. It was very simple, Mr. Gilkey told Ms. Bartlett in an extended series of interviews that began in one of the jails where he served time.

His motive? Collecting books was his life’s mission and his obsession. He thought they were his due, and he felt no guilt or regret about stealing them. Jejune and self-absorbed, when his favorite football team lost a game, “he felt slighted. — So he did what he usually did when he felt wronged: he stole a book, this time using a bad check.” Ms. Bartlett concludes that Mr. Gilkey had a passion for possession, and that perverse form of love is one driving force in the narrative. Another is a kind of wanderlust into Bibliophile Nation, which the narrator tours with the genuine wonder of an art-history major seeing Florence for the first time.

Often her prose aptly demonstrates the writers’ workshop adage “Show Don’t Tell.” Seemingly intelligent, Mr. Gilkey “frequently mispronounced words the way well-read people who have not grown up around well-read people often do.” Her profile of him is detailed and nuanced as it projects a man who came to love books and libraries through movies for the ideal elegance they represented, and somehow became convinced that he was entitled to take them gratis from people who have so many.

The most mystifying of the three principals, Mr. Gilkey is a man of modest origins, no legitimate accomplishment and almost inscrutable motives. Unable to buy rare volumes, he found other ways to “get” them, his word for stealing. “It was fun, he thought.” This portrait stands on its own, for while Ms. Bartlett examines Mr. Gilkey with the guile of a forensic psychiatrist in one-on-one interviews, she does not attempt a diagnosis or wallow in psychobabble. Surely it would be easy to simply call him nuts, nor can I offer anything more specific than the feeling that this man has a hole in his soul.

The third intriguing character, the author herself, is almost an Emma Bovary. She loves books passionately but ponders what she should risk: To become a slave to her passion, a dedicated serious collector? Like both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Gilkey? So ensnared by the dilemma that she scrambles a simile as she writes “Collecting is like hunger. Having one more book doesn’t quench the longing for another.”

In the end she doesn’t give in to seduction, but remains an honest woman, a reader. Take that, Flaubert.

Writer and venture publisher Philip Kopper can be reached at

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