There are people who love books, people who love to collect books and people who love books, particularly rare ones, so much that they’re willing to steal them. Books coveted by collectors can be quite valuable -- say, a first Italian edition of “Pinocchio” ($80,000) or the first-edition “Lolita” that Vladimir Nabokov inscribed to his friend Graham Greene, which fetched $264,000 at auction.
In “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” Allison Hoover Bartlett immerses herself in the fascinating world of antiquarian books, where provenance is an obsession and treasure hunters perpetually seek the next big prize.
Deftly exploring the point at which passion becomes madness and eccentricity turns criminal, Bartlett focuses on two men: John Charles Gilkey, perhaps the most relentless and unrepentant book thief in recent history, and surely the most successful; and Ken Sanders, the Utah rare bookseller and former head of security for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Assn. of America (ABAA) who sought to bring him to justice.
“We were all tenacious hunters,” Bartlett writes, “Gilkey for books, Sanders for thieves, and me for both their stories.”
As she researches her book -- attending book fairs, interviewing booksellers and spending time with the elusive Gilkey himself -- Bartlett discovers that her story is not just about the book thief but about “people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books.”
A voracious reader, she doesn’t fetishize books herself but comes to understand why others do. Most serious collectors, she tells us, are white men over 40, and they’re not necessarily readers. Some collect for the investment, others for the thrill of it: As the author notes, one man’s red Porsche is another man’s signed first edition of “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
Gilkey has the collector’s yearning, but is in no position to satisfy it. Born in 1968 in Modesto, he proves a kleptomaniac early on. (His frequent partner in crime is his father.) He’s a drifter who has trouble holding down a job, and when he isn’t stealing books, he’s researching his next acquisition.
What makes him such a bizarre case (and so hard to catch) is that these stolen books never resurface in the marketplace; he hoards them for himself.
From 1999 to 2003, he stole at least $100,000 worth of books, mostly in and around San Francisco. (He also hit two L.A. booksellers -- Dailey Rare Books and the Heritage Book Shop -- both of which closed their stores in 2007.) His ultimate goal, he confides to Bartlett, is to build a collection valued at millions.
Most of the volumes stolen by Gilkey have not been recovered, and are believed to be in storage somewhere in Northern California. This is where Sanders comes in. Yet even as he mobilizes his extensive network of book dealers, Gilkey proves incorrigible.
Over the course of Bartlett’s book, he drifts in and out of prison. (At the time of publication, his whereabouts were unknown.)
The delusional Gilkey, Bartlett writes, believes that creating a vast book collection will reveal an “ideal self,” debonair and cultured. Never mind that it is entirely fraudulent.
Gilkey, after all, is no suave, charismatic James Bond villain. He’s a nondescript loner with thinning hair. His crimes involve the quotidian use of bad checks and other people’s credit cards. In this age of high-tech cyber fraud, they don’t even require a computer.
Instead, while working at a San Francisco department store, he harvested hundreds of credit card numbers, then used pay phones to place book orders. Whenever he is released from prison, the cycle begins anew -- most recently from Canadian dealers, Bartlett reports.
To the end, the author remains nonplused by Gilkey, a pathological liar who maintains a staggering disconnect. He uses the phrase “getting things for free” to describe his actions, and complains that he “didn’t like to spend his ‘own money.’ ”
Tautly written, wry and thoroughly compelling, “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” unfolds like a great mystery. It also offers a look at the history of book collecting, as well as insight into how book dealers assess value. Bartlett is an appealing storyteller who becomes more personally entangled in her narrative than she had wished, which adds to the drama.
One of the most jaw-dropping moments in the book comes toward the end, when Bartlett asks a freshly paroled Gilkey about his plans for finding a job.
“Work?” he replies. “Actually, they do have an opening at a bookstore.”
Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, “Poems About Horses.”