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


Riverhead Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009. ISBN 978-1-59948-891-7.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 01/03/2010
Review of the Month, January 2010

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

Readers understand the mystique of books. Most of us have our own quirks and book obsessions, many of which revolve around our love affair with the written word. Often we, too, have book collections of one kind or another; a favored author, a special subject, a particular format. Yet Allison Hoover Bartlett's account of one man's bibliomania makes us stop short and rethink how we react to our treasured books!

With a definite flavor of other books on manias, particularly Susan Orleans best-selling title, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, we are swept up in the story telling; in awe, and perhaps dismay that there really are people who will go to prison for a book. John Charles Gilkey was, and is, such a man. This book is his tale, a look at how one man bamboozled the antiquarian book trade and its members.

Since we have a man in a black hat, there must be a white hat somewhere—and there is. Ken Sanders, a self-proclaimed "bibliodick," has made it his mission to stop Gilkey in his tracks, and prevent the further loss of such timeless books as a first edition of The Grapes of Wrath. Allison Hoover Bartlett's first meeting with Sanders is laden with stories of such thefts, of missing incunabula, and the "aesthetic charms" of printed materials. From the very first chapter Hoover makes it her mission to discover what drives thieves such as Gilkey, and what motivates such unofficial detectives such as Sanders.

As far as investments go, Sanders makes it clear that few make money collecting books and related ephemera. It is a field that attracts book lovers to collect and sell treasured tomes, simply for the joy of handling rarities, smelling the must and dust of books hundreds of years old, and of opening a book for the first time, and realizing that it is in mint condition, with no foxing or tears or spine damage. Unfortunately, this attraction isn't reserved for legitimate buyers and sellers only. There is no predicting who will be bitten by the book bug, and when characters like Gilkey come out of the woodwork, it becomes—seller beware!

As the story unfurls, the characters and idiosyncrasies of each man become more obvious. The reader is alternately appalled and fascinated by Gilkey's constant justification of his behavior and his numerous thefts, and Sanders' personal fixation with preventing any more inroads by Gilkey on illegally obtaining precious, irreplaceable volumes . Sometimes Gilkey comes off as being levelheaded and sane, whilst Sanders seems hysterical and irrational. The lines blur and waver between the two protagonists, and we almost come to understand both viewpoints, despite knowing that Gilkey is wrong, and Sanders is right.

So often, Gilkey is portrayed as feeling distanced from his behavior and misdeeds, citing insurance coverage as justification for depriving others of their property. Bartlett says, "Once Gilkey had rid himself of the (item) he felt he should also be rid of all blame." This twisting in the wind is typical of many lawbreakers, who feel some off-the-wall validation within themselves for often-heinous wrongs. Bartlett tries to pin Gilkey down, but despite often expressing an antagonism towards dealers, he manages to slip out of any open confession of guilt.

Sanders' place in the story is important, for, as Bartlett says, "...stocking his store is a form of vicarious collecting..." No matter which side of the law the central characters fall on, ultimately, their instincts are much the same—to have and to hold works of immeasurable importance, both in literary value and publication matchlessness. Moreover, whether or not we share those self-same obsessions, we can understand the driven personality and the want-to-have syndrome Gilkey displays. Bartlett does a good job of helping us see the shades of grey in the stories each man tells, and not only the value of the books stolen, but the value of the interaction between thief and seller. It is an ongoing tale—woven in our culture and our value system, so that no matter how we shake our heads at the excessive behaviors, we are intrigued, fascinated, and ultimately drawn into this storyteller's art.


In addition to being the author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession Allison Hoover Bartlett has written on a variety of topics, including travel, art, science and education, for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon.com, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, San Francisco Magazine, and other publications. Her original article on John Gilkey was included in the Best American Crime Reporting 2007. Bartlett is a founding member of the writing group North 24th and works at the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a collective studio. She has a B.A. in English literature from UC Santa Barbara and lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. Visit her website.

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