I haven’t ever considered myself much of a collector. I had things I collected, but I’ve never been really obsessed with having or collecting (well, except once but I think that had more to do with sibling rivalry than anything else). And the idea of “collecting” things just to have them never really occurred to me as a possibility. And yet I still own books from when I was a very small child, and have spent a fair amount of time hunting down the Dragonflight and Harper Hall series novels in the mass market versions my father owned and I subsequently read the covers off of.
So maybe, just maybe, I thought I might see something of myself in this book. A book I wouldn’t even have heard of if it weren’t for the Book Exchange this year (I bought a copy for my recipient and promptly bought a copy for myself). I like mysteries, and I like books (obviously) and there’s even a usually buried part of me that likes True Crime.
Billed as the story of a book thief and the collector/rare book seller who brought him to justice, the book felt a bit heavy on the “thief” side; Ms. Bartlett spent a great amount of time trying to put herself in his shoes and to try and understand the mindset that led him to steal so very many books. Sadly, I think I learned more on that front than she did.
In some ways, the book is mistitled; in others, the title is perfect. John Gilkey, the thief, does not love books. I’ll just say that up front. He professes to love them, but it seemed inarguable to me that he doesn’t; to him, books are a means to an end (that end being others’ perceptions of him as a well-read and wealthy man) that has nothing to do with the joy of holding and cherishing such rare pieces themselves. He loves the idea of himself as the little guy getting one over on the people who would keep him from his goals (including credit card theft, impersonation, identity theft, and other such crimes, all of which were justified in his mind because the booksellers were, among other things, driving rare book prices up deliberately so he couldn’t have them). In the end, his criminal mind and refusal (or, rather, inability to change his obsessive drive) catches up with him through the person of Ken Sanders, rare book dealer and “bibliodick.”
Sanders, I think it is fair to argue, does love books. Rather a lot. And that is the fundamental disconnect between the author, the book, and her subject. I didn’t count pages to be certain of this, but it felt to me that more time was spent on Gilkey’s side of things rather than on Sanders, and while the author herself was excited to meet the criminal and get him to talk to her about what he’d done I was less impressed — both with him and with her. When learning how easy it had been for Gilkey to call up and steal a book by using a stolen credit card, it would have been likewise interesting to learn more about the legal method of buying a book; or, perhaps, it could have been interesting to track one of Gilkey’s thefts in parallel with another book passing hands. There are some anecdotal stories about first editions or valuable manuscripts being found at yard sales or flea markets, and a passing nod to what makes a rare book rare. These tidbits, however, were drowned out by repeated Gilkey thefts which rarely varied in manner or method.
The author spends a bit too much time inserting herself into situations and worrying about her “ethical responsibilities” to booksellers who had been harmed by Gilkey’s behavior — a worry that so far as I can tell she never acts on — I can only presume because she found the flashy, narcissistic Gilkey more interesting than the quieter Sanders. There’s also an implication — nay, a profound belief — that she’ll be able to earn the criminal’s trust enough to learn where he has hidden the missing books.
I liked the book and I can recommend it — but go in aware that it has flaws. The deepest of which is the title: I believe it should be The Men who Love Books because the booksellers care far more for their temporary charges, and respect the inanimate objects for their connection to history, than Gilkey ever could.