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The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

by Allison Hoover Bartlett (Riverhead, 2009)

He was aware that stealing books was illegal, and yet he continued to steal them, because he did not equate illegal with wrong. Was this a permanent state of mind or could he change? He didn't seem to want to. Instead, he kept his mind on his collection, imagining how it would elevate his position in society. He would be regarded as a man of culture and erudition, just like the woman in the wealth management advertisement I had seen, who was pictured leaving a rare book shop. Everywhere he looked movies, television, books, advertisements, clothing catalogs were images that confirmed our culture's reverence not for literature per se, but for an accumulation of books as a sign that you belonged among gentility.

Sociopaths are not noted for their comic potential. By and large, they come to our attention only after they have left a bloody trail of serial murders, or some such gruesomeness. A non-violent sociopath with delusions of grandeur, though, can be very funny. I wouldn't say that I laughed my way through Allison Hoover Bartlett's highly implicated true-crime report, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, but there were plenty of cognitive dissonances of the kind that only laugher can resolve. It's possible that you're not as mean as I am, or as tickled by the naked dream of becoming a man of sophistication just like that: by standing next to a bookcase full of rare old books (that, PS, you stole). Sure, it's pathetic. But then so is Wile E Coyote's hope that the new crate full of Acme products will bag him the Road Runner.

This  book could not have a better address. Located at the intersection of First and Caper, it combines all the excitement of a compelling crime story with a tour of the exotic land of rare books. Rare books are hardly as popular as crime stories, but they're of especial interest to people who actually read lots of books, as this is one thing that book collectors don't seem to spend much time on, aside from perusing sale catalogues. With our piles of books that aren't worth what we paid for them, we're very likely to find the subject of Ms Bartlett's book doubly perverted. First, of course, there is his sociopathic belief that desire alone entitles him to possess the things books, in this case that he covets. Is that any stranger than, second, the lust that he shares with book collectors that, for whom texts formerly known as "contents" are the least interesting things about books?

Ms Bartlett is a gifted journalist, and although The Man Who Loved Books Too Much did grow out of a piece for a local San Francisco paper, it does not read like a bloated magazine article. In no small part, the heft of a proper book is conveyed by the author's involvement in her story, which begins at the beginning. A friend brings her a copy of the Kreuterbuch, a 1630 compendium of herbal cures that has been withdrawn improperly from a library somewhere; the friend seeks help in getting the book back where it belongs. Trying to help out, Ms Bartlett stumbles (via the Internet) on to a crime wave of rare book thefts. Soon she is talking to Ken Sanders, a book dealer in Salt Lake City who was also, for several years, the "security chair" of the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association of America; and the man that they are talking about John Charles Gilkey.

An average-looking man with a polite demeanor courteousness is arguably his most powerful weapon Gilkey fascinates the author at her first interview with him, while he is in prison. (I lost count of Gilkey's prison spells; the man seems to regard incarceration as an unavoidable occupational hazard.)

He was not the flinty, belligerent criminal I had expected, nor had he been completely straight with me. What I felt sure of was that he was a man completely enthralled by books and how they might express his ideal self. He was a collector like other collectors but also not like them. His polite manner had been a relief at first, but had become disconcerting. Reconciling the face of composu8re with his history of crime was no simple task, and it was about to become even more complicated.

So complicated that, a few months later, the author "tags along" with Gilkey on a simulated scouting trips. What she would like to do is case out the bookshelves at Goodwill, where her felonious companion would be inconspicuous. Instead, Gilkey insists on visiting the scene of one of his crimes, a prestigious bookshop called Brick Row. Even though no actionable crime is committed, this episode is by far the most hair-raising in the book. "Accompanying Gilkey to Brick Row was an irresistible chance to be an eyewitness." As an eyewitness, however, the author swelters in unbearable mortification. John Crichton, the proprietor from whom Gilkey stole a valuable Mayor of Casterbridge, seems to recognize the thief. It gets worse when Gilkey, talking in a stage whisper, disparages Crichton's wares. "My hands began to tremble. I dropped my pen," Ms Bartlett writes.

Gilkey walked a couple of steps to his right, where there were a few maps mounted on cardboard and covered in plastic. "A lot of stores also have maps, too. Here's one of San Francisco," he said, reaching for one, then adding in a raised voice, "What they do is, I guess they rip them out of books."

I avoided looking at Crichton so I wouldn't have to see his response.

Gilkey peered through the metal grate of one of the bookcases again. "Then there are certain books that an average collector will never be able to get, like Edgar Allan Poe. Books like that no one's going to be able to buy unless you're a top-tier collector, or your family happened to have one."

Crichton stared at us from his desk, where he stood. How much longer would Gilkey go on?

But Ms Bartlett well understands that she is a collector, too: she must have this story, which is all the more piquant in this season of mourning the end of books. In the confusion, an ambiguity easily takes root, and some observers rather sloppily conclude that books are to e-books what scrolls were to books. But the word "book" really denotes the intellectual product, usually consisting largely of words, that until very recently, people have owned in palpable form, almost always in the form of a codex. The codex may be a doomed as the scroll, but it won't be replaced by digital files uploaded to a device not altogether, by any means. Mrs Bartlett nails it, I think, when she considers the role that books are likely to play in the lives of her children.

They will have no objection to reading e-books. At the same time, though, I think that may only strengthen their attachment to the physical books they do keep.

I happen to be very poor at taking notes. Whether I write just a few things down or copy out paragraphs, I rarely know, while I'm reading a book, what I'm going to want to retrieve from it when I'm through. Writing this page, I wanted to name the Bay Area publication in which Ms Bartlett published the first installment of her Gilkey saga, but I couldn't find the mention without actually re-reading the book up to the point at which it's named. It would have been very nice to fall back on a search engine re-read the book for me and tell me exactly what I want to know. Thinking this, I felt a little sheepish; was I whining that searching books is boring? No: I was missing the index. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much does not have an index. If there is one feature of book publication that digital editing makes simple, it is the construction of indexes. Whether compiled by authors or their publishers, indexes are an extremely valuable element in any non-fiction publication, and a well-designed index is superior to a search engine in that it serves also as a sort of outline, laying related facts and issues side-by-side. I may not love books as such, but I do love indexes too much to watch them wither without copious wailing.

Not far from the end of the book, Gilkey expresses solicitude about Ms Bartlett's project.

"I was thinking of the ending of your book," he told me. "I could write a series of detective novels. The first one would be about a serial killer who's fascinated by the poem "The Devil's Walk," written in 1820 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is a very striking poem. It mentions bookstores and sort of an obsession... Anyway, in my novel the FBI has to call in the foremost expert in the world of books and poem and classical literature, because there are no book dealers that can solve the murderer's crimes. This expert is someone who, as Ken Sanders says, went over to the dark side and found all these ways to steal, to accumulate the greatest collection of rare books in the world. And then he had to go to prison, but now he's out, so they called him in as a consultant. Unfortunately, he's a former convict. You know, slightly crazy, but he stole rare books. I would base it a little on me.... I'd be set up like this dark figure. And maybe I'd try to have more access to certain books that the government keeps hidden. You know, the book. You know what I mean.... There's always one book you can never get your hands on to. Maybe he's working with the FBI just to have access to that one book.... Maybe it's at the Library of Congress, maybe a special hidden book, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the diary of JFK's killing. Something like that. And maybe there's a surprise ending. Now he has access to the book, so maybe...." Gilkey paused a moment before delivering his ending. "Maybe still, I'm a thief.

"What do you think about that idea? Your honest opinion?"

Well, it's better than this one: commissioning an artist to illustrate one select scene from each of the titles in the Modern Library's Hundred Greatest Books, and then to publish the collection as a kind of easy anthology. "First, he said he would read each book and give the artist instructions, but then he admitted that he might not read them all; he would just ask someone about them instead." Our sociopath is no Hannibal Lecter, no brilliant and discerning connoisseur of the finer things in life. Aside from the stealing part, he is no different from the millions of people who luxuriate in dreams spawned by advertising. Gilkey's private library stored who knows where, and probably never to be seen by anyone else is a sort of philosopher's stone: being in its presence will transform him into "his ideal self." He need do nothing beyond acquiring it. Like any collector, Gilkey is prone to lose interest in the trophies that he has already captured; accumulation simply sharpens his impatience for more.

As I write this, a book arrives in the mail. It is a copy of The Man Who Love Books Too Much, signed by both the author and by "biblio-detective" Ken Sanders. I consider it a valuable addition to my library priceless, in fact. (September 2009)

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