For anyone that has coveted a leather spine, an author’s signature, or a first edition, you may sympathize with John Gilkey. Never heard of him before? Well, the man has stolen items well over $50,000. Yet, the majority of the population would never know about Gilkey’s monumentous thefts over the course of the past decade if not for Allison Hoover Bartlett’s new novel, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.
Bartlett’s book is an expansion on a piece she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. It details the crimes of John Gilkey, a man who stole rare books in an effort to create an image for himself, one of wealth and intelligence. Rare book theft is uncommonly trite, it occurs more often than one might think and with the prevalence of Internet marketplaces such as eBay, thieves are given more access than ever before to their potential victims.
Many may find this whole practice of collecting a bit off-putting. Why in the world might someone covet a collection of books, especially books that are old or first editions? Well, one of the reasons that Bartlett names for the desire for rare books is the way in which these first editions somehow place the reader or owner closer to the author. For Gilkey, however, she reasons that his motivations are much more egoistic. “If I had to reduce him to one sentence, I’d say that Gilkey is a man who believes that the ownership of a vast rare book collection would be the ultimate expression of his identity, that any means of getting it would be fair and right, and that once people could see his collection, they would appreciate the man who had built it” (251).
The book itself chronicles Bartlett’s interviews with rare book collectors as well as Gilkey himself, during his brief breaks from being in prison. Bartlett definitely becomes more than a casual reporter and rather than touting her credibility through her own love of rare books, her opinions become more biased throughout the piece. We steadily see her sympathy for Gilkey fade and at the novel’s conclusion, she is almost legally embroiled in Gilkey’s criminal undertakings.
While the novel is informative, it carries on a bit longer than one might like. It reads almost as a crime report that seems to go on for pages rather than provide the essential information. For this reason, audiences might find the charm of learning about rare books gets old by the hundredth page. Still, learning about the rare books trade can be quite compelling, especially for lovers of literature who have contemplated purchasing a rare book or better yet, finding a treasure amongst the rubbish of some Goodwill store.
The Philadelphia rare books scene is mentioned throughout the novel. Bruce McKittrick Rare Books of Philadelphia is at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the novel’s introduction. Owner McKittrick’s wares include a collection of erotic literature from sixteenth century Italy. To believe that books published over 500 years ago might still be intact is enough to enchant any reader.
However, we also see that Gilkey took his con business eastward. He attempted to steal a book from Cynthia Davis Buffington of Philadelphia Rare Books and Manuscripts. Her email to the ABAA (the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America) security chair and rare books dealer, Ken Sanders, read the following:
Phone order today for $6500. American Express name: Isser Gottlieb. Conversation felt right, authorization came through. Caller said he wasn’t sure the Oakland shipping address was current card address. Said he’d just moved from Savannah and gave me address there also. Googled ship address: Hilton. Phone area code: san fran… I called American Express. They said fraud.
Though PRB&M did not fall victim to Gilkey’s ploys, he did scam most booksellers in this manner, through credit card fraud. He would gather receipts, call booksellers from a hotel under a fake name, and then have books shipped to various addresses, mostly hotels, throughout the San Francisco area. It all seems rather brilliant and he might have gotten away with it if not for the persistence of Ken Sanders, whose passion for catching Gilkey can almost be cited as the main thread of the novel.
However, even though we as readers see individuals like Sanders hurt by Gilkey’s actions, we still are compelled to read about Gilkey’s exploits with a sort of morbid fascination. Bartlett states that Gilkey is a criminal who is receiving attention unworthy for his deeds (214). So why do we celebrate criminals in the media? Why do we read about all those that were hurt by that individual’s actions? It’s the car wreck syndrome; we just love to see the aftermath of tragedy.
NPR has written a lovely piece on this novel and provides an excerpt of the book as well. Go there to see not only images of Bartlett and Sanders but also view some of the rare books Gilkey had stolen. For more information on Bruce McKittrick Rare Books of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Rare Books and Manuscripts, peruse the aforementioned links respectively.