A review by Joel Hyde
A review of Allison Hoover Bartlett’s, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2009. Hardback, 274 pp. $24.95
In this book Allison Hoover Bartlett describes her investigations into the activities of John Charles Gilkey, who used stolen credit card numbers and bad checks to purchase rare books through the used and rare book trade, mainly on the West Coast. Bartlett begins her research by interviewing Ken Sanders, at the time the ABAA Security Chair. He was largely responsible for Gilkey’s apprehension and incarceration. When she tells Sanders that Gilkey, who is still in prison, also has agreed to an interview, she expects Sanders “to be excited by the news, eager to hear the details (this, after all, was his big quarry) but instead he looked stern, incredulous.”
“You should ask him where all the books he stole are hidden,” he said peevishly.
“I’ll bet he has a storage unit somewhere out in Modesto, where he’s from.” (39)
But Bartlett is less interested in recovering the books than in understanding why Gilkey stole them. Gilkey seems to have stolen rare books out of love of them, not for resale. This, Bartlett thinks, is “the sort of thief whose motivation I might understand.” (5) For his part, Gilkey turns out to be eager to play the part of the bibliophile gone astray. When Bartlett meets him, he is so polite that he reminds her of “the children’s television host Mr. Rogers.” (44) She begins by asking him how he became interested in books—she wants to avoid the subject of stealing, out of fear that he will refuse to talk to her. Gilkey describes how he grew up in a bookish family; how he fed a longing for wealth by reading Richie Rich comic books; and how he learned from the movies that one of the trappings of wealth is a library of rare books. “In many ways, Gilkey did not appear to be all that different from other book collectors. The only quality I knew of that set him apart was his criminal history.” (48)
Bartlett meets with Gilkey repeatedly, and as they get to know each other, a less congenial Gilkey emerges:
I had decided to be more frank about my views of his stealing. I told him that I had spoken with dealers whose books he’d stolen, and that some said they hadn’t had insurance, so they suffered the losses themselves.
“As a business owner I certainly wouldn’t want to lose five hundred dollars.But if you open up a business, things like that are going to happen.” Stuff like that happens. That he made it happen was irrelevant to Gilkey….he spoke in short, staccato sentences, brimming with braggadocio, like a gangster in a 1940s movie.(207-8)
Gilkey turns out to be indifferent to the harm he does to the booksellers that he steals from.
In fact, he is hostile toward them. Once he is out of prison, he calls Bartlett and asks if she would like to accompany him to Brick Row in San Francisco, a rare book store where she knows he was caught buying a book with a stolen credit card. Bartlett is worried enough about what she might be getting herself into that she runs the idea by Sanders, who more or less approves the visit. Almost as soon as Bartlett and Gilkey are in Brick Row, the owner, John Crichton, asks Gilkey what his name is. Gilkey beats around the bush but eventually replies honestly. Then Crichton asks Bartlett who she is. She says, not entirely honestly, that she is “a journalist writing a story about book collectors.” (178) Probably thinking that she doesn’t know her companion’s history, Crichton suggests a follow-up interview with himself. In the meantime Gilkey, knowing he has been recognized, begins walking around the store, always under Crichton’s watchful eye, complaining loudly about the dishonesty of Crichton’s profession—the first editions he has been sold that weren’t first editions, the books that were described as having dust jackets but arrived without them.
In Brick Row, the soft green carpet was lush, the kind of flooring that generously accepts your footsteps and makes them inaudible. It encourages quiet talk, but in an even louder voice, Gilkey went on to describe buying books at book fairs, only to discover later that he’d been cheated. It was obvious that these stories were for Crichton’s ears as much as mine, and it pained me to listen.(181)
It doesn’t pain her enough, though, to tell Gilkey to stop, or to walk out on him so as not to be a party to his rudeness. “As a reporter,” she writes, “I was in no position to contradict him.” (180) Sanders thinks otherwise; when he hears about Bartlett’s visit to Brick Row, he loses his temper at her:
Despite my having consulted with him before going, which he seemed to have forgotten, his disgust was plain. He closed his e-mail with a chiding request: “I don’t want to hear about your sick games ever again….”Sanders, the hero of this story, was turning out to be more intractable than Gilkey, the criminal. I lay awake much of the night, fearing that all my hard work had been for naught, that I had lost my story.(190-1)
She hasn’t lost her story, though. Sanders’ memory turns out to be as forgiving as it is short. More importantly, Sanders the bibliodetective isn’t at the heart of her story—and neither is Gilkey the book thief. They may be her hero and villain, but the real protagonist of her book is Bartlett herself. She thinks that her book is “ a cautionary tale or those who plan to deal in rare books,” but that it “may also be a lesson for those writers who, like me, approach a story with the naïve belief that they will be able to follow it the way a spectator passively follows a parade, and that they will be able to leave it without altering its course.” (6) I think that her book has much more to say about journalism than it has to say about the book trade or the criminal mind.
Late in her investigation, Bartlett arranges to interview Gilkey’s mother and sister in the family home in Modesto. Gilkey seems to have coached them in advance, and they show Bartlett all the evidence they can muster that Gilkey is a man of culture. His mother finds it hard to believe that her son is a thief. “I mean, it’s innocent. Maybe he was just wandering around or looking around with the book, and he must have forgot about it, and then he got caught.” (236) Eventually she leads Bartlett into Gilkey’s bedroom:
His shoes were neatly lined up on the floor and artwork he had collected hung on the walls….I made a move to leave, but his mother motioned toward the closet, which she opened.
“See how he keeps his things? Neat,” she said. “And look. More books!”
Yes, more books. Stacks and stacks of them….Their spines faced the back of the closet, as if in hiding. This seemed the most private, most intimate corner of Gilkey’s room, but instead of looking inside to see if I recognized any of the books he had stolen, I turned away…. I was afraid of what I would find if I drew the books from the pile, what degree of crime, and what degree of responsibility I might bear in knowing the books were there. (239-40)
Perhaps this was “the storage unit in Modesto” that Sanders guessed would be there. Here might be evidence that could lock up Gilkey for years, that might implicate his family in his crimes; here might be books that could be returned to their lawful owners—but Bartlett turns away from them, afraid that if she looks more closely at them she will get in way over her head.
Of course, she already has. It is easy for a bookseller, especially one who has been a victim of book thieves, to dislike this book. It is easy to blame Bartlett for not cooperating more in the apprehension of a thief, for embarking instead on the fool’s errand of trying to understand his heart. It is easy to blame her for blurring the distinction between the desire to possess books and the desire to steal them, not to mention the distinction between the desire to possess books and the love of them. It is easy to blame her for not becoming more intimate with and knowledgeable about the world of used and rare books.
At least her sojourn into that world has taught her something about herself:
When books are joined with others that have traits in common they form a larger story that can reveal something wholly new about the history of democracy, or Renaissance cooking, or Hells Angels who pen novels…. I now see myself as an ardent collector…of stories. Searching for them, researching them, and writing them gives my life shape and purpose the way that hunting, gathering, and cataloging books does for the collector. (253-4)
If she can learn something about herself, from observing the activities of those who pursue books, then maybe they can learn something about themselves, from observing her sometimes awkward and sometimes conscience-stricken attempts to pursue her story. Every profession affords ethical dilemmas, and being reminded of how difficult and necessary it is to struggle with those dilemmas is of some value. It just isn’t anywhere near as valuable as it would be to get back books that were stolen from us.