I was delighted to receive this book as one of my Cannonball Read 6 book exchange gifts. This book was recommended by members an old book club many moons ago, and it’s been on my mind ever sense (I confess, I was enamored by the title.) Despite the long wait, and thusly raised expectations, I was utterly fascinated.
John Charles Gilkey is the titular book thief, a man who dreams of opulence but comes from humble beginnings. To attain the object of his desires, rare books, he steals through credit card fraud and ruses. Bartlett begins her interviews with Gilkey during one of his prison stints, at which time he is happy to discuss how he has “gotten” his books. Though his obsession and life story is intriguing, even more interesting is his attitude toward his lifestyle, and choices.
“I’d say that’s the nature of the business. That’s how I feel now. 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.”
The audacity and lack of repentance are staggering, and he never wavers in his conviction and entitlement. Bartlett sums up my thoughts on Gilkey with precision. “What must it be like, I wondered, to view the world in such a way, to feel entitled to all one desired and to be able to justify oneself any means of obtaining it?”
Also, before reading I incorrectly assumed he was a book lover, but really, he is a just a book owner: it isn’t the stories or knowledge that he craves, but the possessing, and the quest for stature. It strikes me as vulgar, to only what books for their value, and not the lessons and meaning inside.
As a sentimental person, I understand treasuring objects, as does Bartlett. “Physical artifacts carry memory and meaning, and this is as true of important historical texts as it is of cherished childhood books.” But what meaning can there be if there is no story to tell about the item, no understanding of what is inside?
Barlett does an excellent job of telling Gilkey’s story, and later hers as she is pulled in to his narrative. For the avid reader, this book will be educational regarding the oft overlooked world of rare book collecting, and provide many points to ponder.