Anyone who is a bibliophile (and let’s face it, most of us who review books are) will be able to relate to the subject matter of Allison Hoover Bartlett’s book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. As someone who collects books as much for their aesthetic appeal as for their content, I can understand the desire to own leather-bound volumes of Dickens’ works or first editions of modern classics. If I won the lottery, books are probably the first things I would buy – well maybe after more bookshelves, anyway. This book is the story of what happens when an appreciation for the fine works of literature turns into an obsession.
Hoover Bartlett was drawn into the world of literary antiquity by chance when she agreed to take responsibility for returning a very old, and rare book on botany to a college library from whence it was accidentally purloined by the late sister of a friend. She becomes interested in discovering the provenance and value of the book and proceeds to take it to a rare book dealer and to have passages translated from the German by a friend. As she learns more about the book, she becomes curious to discover how such a rare and valuable book could go missing from an educational institution without any seeming attempts being made to recover the missing item. When she contacts the library she discovers that not only are they not actively searching for the volume, but they have no records of it ever having belonged to the library in the first place.
So begins a foray into the world of literary theft – a world, Hoover Bartlett is soon to discover, that is much larger than she ever imagined. As she begins to contact rare book sellers and collect stories of literary theft, she comes across John Gilkey, a notorious thief who had stolen books from many different rare book dealers in the United States using a variety of scams involving bad cheques and stolen credit card numbers. Gilkey, she discovers, steals not for profit, but out of a sense of entitlement and a desire to own books that he sees as symbols of the cultured and learned. Hoover Bartlett subsequently begins interviewing Gilkey during one of his incarcerations and learns how he carried out some of his scams, accompanies him to a bookstore (an uncomfortable experience since he had previously stolen from that store and the owner recognized him), and visits his mother and sisters.
Hoover Bartlett approaches her newfound interest as any good collector does, and interweaves Gilkey’s story with little anecdotes about other book collectors and thieves throughout history that she learns from the rare book dealers she comes to know quite well. The character of Gilkey isn’t very likeable, though he probably isn’t meant to be. The author doesn’t share much of herself with the reader aside from brief references to books she loves and seems increasingly uncomfortable with her research subject. Any booklover will find this book to be an interesting read. Overall it is a charming light read to pass an afternoon with, and an introduction not only to the world of book theft, but also to the world of rare book collecting.