Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much - The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Reviewed for Edwards Magazine Book Club
Published by Penguin Canada

Allison Hoover Bartlett has written a remarkable piece on this true story of "World of Literary Obsession". The research is deep and personal; the reader becomes involved in the research through her words. This is her story almost as much as John Gilkey's, the book thief she is writing about. It all begins with a beautiful, nearly 400 year old book that has been brought to her by a friend who found it while clearing out a house. She believes the book was stolen which sets her off on a search of discovery about thefts of rare books, wondering if there might be a piece she, as a journalist, can use for an article. Unfortunately, by involving both herself and the reader in her research and interviews, the first part of the book becomes tedious at times.

The book really takes off when the chase to catch Gilkey begins. The sting set up progresses with the same intent as any other criminal chase, and indeed, antiquarian book thievery is no less criminal than the theft of fine art from a museum. In some cases of extremely old manuscripts, they are a work of art. The thief is an amazingly complex yet simple character. The in-depth interviews the author has with Gilkey are quite revealing and yet it is difficult to determine, even to the interviewer, what he really is revealing. When he is working at Saks with all its well-heeled customers, which he does every year around Christmas, he is secreting credit card slips (this at a time before electronic credit card machines, and there was a second slip of paper usually torn out and thrown away). This is how he "purchases" the books. Even prison sentences do not deter him because in his own mind he is not stealing, How much is he lying? His responses are contradictory at times but mostly he speaks as an authority on collectible books.

An intriguing non-fiction look into the antiquarian book world, both dealers and thieves, and how obsessive it can be. I did enjoy the book for the most part, but was disappointed in others. This is a book that many readers will find compelling and others may not be quite so satisfied. Definitely informative, however.

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