Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Yesterday I finished reading this book by Allison Hoover Bartlett. A little embarrassed to admit that I didn't realize it was nonfiction until I started reading it, even though the cover quite clearly says it is a true story. Hmm. Silly girl, I am.

Usually, I steer quite clear of nonfiction as a general rule. I just love stories, and I have always found nonfiction to be pretty dry, but I'm reading Devil in the White City right now as well, another piece of NF, and it isn't dry at all! Neither was this book.

So, did you even know that book theft--especially rare book theft--is a pretty common crime? I had no idea. A book is much more likely to be stolen than a piece of art. And I'm not talking about cheap paperbacks either here; I'm talking about valuable books. Old books, rare books, first editions, things like that. Some of these books are worth hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are the things book thieves steal.

The book centers around two main characters: John Gilkey, a book thief, and Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer who is obsessed with tracking down book thieves, especially John Gilkey.

The author spoke with Gilkey many times, visiting him often in prison in the times when he was caught and punished for his crimes, and also out of prison when he had been released.

Of the two men, Gilkey was perhaps more fascinating than Sanders because his moral code was so different from anyone's I've ever met--in "real" life or on the page. I spent most of my time while reading the book trying to figure out, like the author was, whether Gilkey was insane, brilliant, a psychopath, or a little bit of all of them. Gilkey refused to use the word "steal" when talking about his career of theft. Instead, he said he "took" books, almost as if they belonged to him in the first place and he was just claiming his property. He seemed to desperately want to prove to the world that he was a man of learning and culture, and to do that, he felt he needed a wide array of impressive books. He studied bibliographies, planning the books he would steal, and he primarily used stolen credit card numbers (he worked for some time at Saks, where he copied down customers' numbers) or bad checks. He was methodical and unpredictable in his thefts, usually just "taking" one book at a time, and not always from the same geographical or literary area.

Rare book store owners are typically embarrassed to admit they have been stolen from. They seem to believe as a group that being the victim of theft or fraud implies that they have been lax in their duty, so they rarely report the crimes. And policemen and other officials are often not very interested in book theft anyway, as no one has been hurt and the criminal is likely not a dangerous person.

But whether a book thief is a dangerous person is a matter of opinion, I think. When a book thief named Daniel Spiegelman was caught and brought to trial for stealing a vast number of books (some of which were the only remaining books of their kind) from Columbia University, his judge stated the following when explaining Daniel's sentence:

"In callously stealing, mutilating, and destroying rare and unique elements of our common intellectual heritage, Spiegelman did not simply aim to divest Columbia of $1.3 million worth of physical property. He risked stunting, and probably stunted, the growth of human knowledge to the detriment of us all. By the very nature of the crime, it is impossible to know exactly what damage he has done. But this much is clear: this crime was quite different from the theft of cash equal to the appraised value of the materials stolen, because it deprived not only Columbia, but the world, of irreplaceable pieces of the past and the benefits of future scholarship."

When seen in this light, the theft of a book is really a crime against human history, especially if it is a rare book. If the thief endangers the book or removes it from public access, that piece of our history could be lost forever. In that way, the theft of one book can make us all that much poorer.

In all, this was an interesting and enlightening read. I learned a bit about the rare book market and trade, about the ways in which dealers evaluate books, and about the complex psychology of one particular thief. My only complaint, and it is a small one, is with the organization of the book. I am betting that the author had done so much research about the world of rare books that she wanted to include her findings in this book along with the story of Gilkey's thefts and Sanders's attempts to find him and hold him accountable for them. I understand how hard it is to find ways to incorporate tidbits of information in the context of the story. But while I sympathize and understand, I must complain that the flow of the narrative was often interrupted by these side-trips into the products of her extensive background research. It was all interesting--very much so!--but sometimes the story hurt for these interruptions, I think.

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