Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary ObsessionThe Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I had a penchant for spending time in the rare manuscripts rooms at both BYU and University of Wisconsin-Madison. While my studies in African History did require me to spend time there to peruse books for research, I enjoyed taking time to thumb through (with gloved hands, of course) everything from medieval manuscripts to pioneer journals to (my favorite) the entire selection of Yellow Book Quarterly, which had nothing at all to do with my research. But hey, I paid tuition (still am, thank you student loans), so I figured I could go in and read what I liked, so long as I left things undamaged and unsoiled by my grubby hands (hence the gloves). But I never once thought of stealing any of these books. Part of it was my conscience (I consider myself an honest person and I hate, hate, hate people who lie a lot), and part of it was security measures put in place to discourage temptation and crimes of opportunity. Now, having done a little writing myself, I know how much work goes into writing a book, let alone the outrageous consumption of time and materials that must have gone into books in the early modern era. Old books are treasures. They should be kept that way: safe and secure.

But there are people out there who will steal such books, usually, I am told, to resell them for profit.

But John Gilkey was is not such a man.

The title The Man Who Loved Books too Much would lead you to believe that Gilkey bought rare books with other people's credit card information because . . . well, he loved them. But the author shows that Gilkey stole rare books because he loved himself too much.

A few reviewers have rated this book poorly because they find Gilkey's acts reprehensible. Yes, they are. The man is a selfish slouch with a sense of entitlement that would give Ronald Reagan heart attacks. But I rate books solely on the book and whether or not it was successful. And here, I have to say . . . "meh".

Bartlett is a journalist. I'll admit to not having a very high opinion of most journalists (especially since I ran for local political office years ago and saw, firsthand, how they distort people's words to suit their own need for "the story"), but I thought I'd give her the benefit of the doubt. The whole schtick of the book - book thief, book detective, literary obsession - seemed very interesting.

And it was . . . until Bartlett decided to put herself in the book. I found the story of the book thief and his pursuit compelling reading. I was fascinated by the internal workings of the rare book industry.

But then . . . well, Allison, things got weird between us. You started wondering if you could get into the thief's head and went on and on about your involvement with the case. You forgot that there needs to be some element of objectivity in a journalistic piece and you questioned this very simple assumption. You did a layman's psychological self-examination of yourself and laid it all out for the reader. Only this reader didn't want it. The story was enough in itself. I loved the story. I don't know if the editor applied pressure, thinking it would sell more books or if you just needed the filler or what, exactly. But sometimes it's best to quit while your still ahead. Or, better yet, quit before you inadvertently shine the spotlight on yourself.


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