From the back cover:
Unrepentant book thief John Charles Gilkey has stolen a fortune in rare books from around the country. Yet unlike most thieves, who steal for profit, Gilkey steals for love—the love of books. Perhaps equally obsessive, though, is Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” driven to catch him. Sanders, a lifelong rare book collector and dealer turned amateur detective, will stop at nothing to catch the thief plaguing his trade.
In following both of these eccentric characters, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged deep into a world of fanatical book lust and ultimately found herself caught between the many people interested in finding Gilkey’s stolen treasure and the man who wanted to keep it hidden: the thief himself.
With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, Bartlett has woven this cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his crimes and how Sanders eventually caught him, but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them.
When a man depicted in a nonfiction narrative is described on the back cover as someone “who will stop at nothing to catch the thief” who has been victimizing members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a reader might be forgiven for expecting some sort of chase. The clever thief. The details of his crimes. The dogged pursuer. The final, satisfying capture. The end.
But that’s not what one gets with The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. I don’t fault author Bartlett for this—she probably had little to do with the way the book was marketed—but it’s rather disappointing all the same. Instead, the book is more a profile of John Gilkey, a mild-mannered guy who used a combination of identity theft and manipulative politeness to steal vast quantities of rare and valuable books. It’s not as if his methods are ingenious, it’s just that he found one that worked and employed it over and over again until enough booksellers finally pooled their information and got him caught. Until he made bail. Then stole again. And was incarcerated again. Then stole again.
The details of some of his crimes are provided, and the scenes of police investigations and sting operations are genuinely fascinating. I liked, too, that Bartlett began to wonder what her responsibilities were regarding some of the information Gilkey had divulged to her, and how much she herself had become a part of the story. Even the fact that Bartlett is more interested in why Gilkey steals than what or how is fine, but after being told for the fourth time that Gilkey steals because he wants a collection others will envy and feels entitled to have it, regardless of whether he can afford it—and how, but for “his crimes and his narcissistic justification of them,” he’s not that different from law-abiding collectors—I began to grow weary.
I admit to some peevishness over the title, as well. Gilkey is not a man who loves books, but a man who loves the status owning an impressive array of recognizable titles will bestow. Granted, that’s a little long for a book title, but as someone who genuinely loves books—for their content!—I am annoyed that someone who merely desires their sheer presence on a shelf gets to make the same claim.
Ultimately, those looking for a detective-style story with a definitive ending will be disappointed. Gilkey is brought to justice for only a fraction of his crimes and shows no intention of stopping any time soon. As the portrait of an obsessed thief with a grudge against those who would keep him from what he believes he deserves, the book is more successful, though somewhat repetitive.
Additional reviews of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much can be found at Triple Take.