Thursday, August 11, 2011

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
I was just perusing the book section at Sam's Club and as I passed this book I only glanced at it.  I had to double back because I wasn't sure I read the title right.  'The Man Who Loved Books Too Much'.  I was entranced.  This book sought me out not the other way around.  I had to have it.  I hoped, as I was picking it up, that it was non-fiction.  I mean how cool would it be if there really was a master book thief!  But to be honest it didn't matter if it was non-fiction or fiction because something in me knew this was going to be a great read.  And to my extreme delight, it was non-fiction.  As I read the synopsis, my inner & outer book nerd was gigging out big time.  I was a giddy kid about to open an xmas present.  Here's the publisher's synopsis: "Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey steals purely for the love of books. In an attempt to understand him better, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged herself into the world of book lust and discovered just how dangerous it can be."
You can see why my berdy (book nerd) senses were all tingly!  I couldn't wait to delve into it.  I finished Bossypants and immediately began this book.  At the very 1st page I knew... Love.  Love is what I was going to feel for this book.  But I'd started books before and thought I was going to love them, only to be disappointed, Water for Elephants anyone?  So I subdued my enthusiasm and Love and just read.  Every page was great.  It was like taking bite for bite of mom's home cooked meal.  Savory and better with each forkful of delicious food, so to was reading each page.  The reader is welcomed with a prologue of Bartlett's telling of the discovery of an old, rare book that a friend happened upon.  She is lent the book and you get the sense that she, will somehow not be returning it.  
She takes us through a book fair on her way to meet a rare book dealer to get the scoop on the story of a book thief.  We are introduced to the "protagonist" and "antagonist", Ken Sanders being the former & John Charles Gilkey being the latter respectively.  But these were not ordinary hero & villain characters you'd expect.  Obviously this is non-fiction so the flare and elaborate persona is tempered by the actual real life persona's.  Ken Sanders is a rare book store owner and "is the self-appointed "bibliodick" (book dealer with a penchant for detective work) driven to catch Gilkey".  He "has an ample paunch, a thinning ponytail, and a long black-and-white beard".  Sound like your normal "hero" of lore?  The thief, Gilkey is equally unimpressive in appearance and stature.  These "ordinary" men, we find out, are far from ordinary.  We are introduced to extraordinary situations, people, obsessions and a world we are completely unaware exists, at least I didn't know. The story itself doesn't play out like fiction like The Devil in the White City (my fave non-fiction book) but it is engrossing.  There is no deep dark lurid and seedy book scene.  We're not taken to a world of bookophile (google it. eww) or any such perversion.  But we are taken into a world of true obsession of love, love for books and rare objects.  It's an addiction for some as serious as gambling.  The problem with some of these addicts, Gilkey especially, is they don't have or want to spend the money for these rare treasures.  And who can blame them?  A rare book can go anywhere from $50-$500,000.  Gilkey claims that unfair.  How can real book lovers ever be able to hope for a decent collection?  He stole because he believed the system was wrong and he deserved to own those books.  And I have to tell you the more I read the more he was convincing me.  I mean one of my dreams, and one I've had since I was kid, was to have a house with one room filled with nothing but books, from floor to ceiling, wall to wall books and a comfy chair in the middle for me to read till my hearts content.  How could I, a mere ordinary individual obtain such a dream?  Well if I were Gilkey I would steal that dream.  Yes his reasoning made sense to me.  Almost convinced me we all had that right to not only have the dream but do whatever it took to fulfill it.  Yes he almost convinced me.  Almost.  But of course there are 2 sides to every story and that is def the case here.  Damn it!  Lol.  Gilkey's righteousness was dubious.  The book stores he stole from were privately owned, like majority of rare book stores are, and these owners had to take the loss, because their insurance wouldn't pay up.  But put that aside, these book store owners are fiercely dedicated to their books.  These books become their treasures, their children.  They scour yard sales, white elephants, book fairs for that elusive rare book that an unknowing seller is selling for far below it's worth.  The obsession is like an unquenchable fire burning in these true bookies, bibliophiles.  They truly hurt when their books, their babies, were taken from them.  So I found myself not only seeing Gilkey's pov, but also the pov of these book sellers.  My view would change from chapter to chapter.  I'd be like, "Yeah good for you Gilkey!" to "Oh Gilkey you are a bad man!".  I couldn't believe the depths to which he sank to scam and thieve books.  And not just books!  He stole credit card slips from working at Saks 5th Ave and would go on trips to New York, Europe and all over California (where he is from).  He spent majority of his life in and out of jail.  He amassed somewhere between $100,000-$200,000 worth of stolen books!  I was appalled and envious at the same time. 
What I also loved that Bartlett did with her storytelling, was to not only go into the main story of Gilkey & Sanders, but she delved into the history of bibliophilia.  There was a Spanish Monk, "Don Vincente in the the 19th century who stole from libraries and ancient monasteries.  He disappeared only to resurface as the owner of a well-stocked antiquarian book shop in Barcelona, where he had a reputation for buying more books than selling them.  He kept the rarest books for himself.  He got into a bidding war at an auction for a book he was obsessed to own, Furs e ordel regne de Valencia (Edicts and Ordinances for Valenica).  He was outbid by Augustino Patxot, a dealer that owned a shop near Vincente's. Vincente appeared to have lost his senses, mumbling threats in the street, and did not even take the reales de consolacion, a small payment the highest bidder had to give to the next highest bidder according to custom at Spanish auctions.  Three nights later, Patxot's house went up in flames, and the next day his charred body was found.  Soon, the bodies of nine learned men were also found, all of whom had been stabbed to death.  Outbursts at the auction had made Don Vincente an obvious suspect.  When his house was searched, the Furs e Ordinacions was found hidden on a top shelf, along with books that had belonged to the other victims.  He confessed to strangling Patxot and stabbing the others only after the magistrate assured him that his library would be well cared for once he was incarcerated.  In court, when the judge asked the accused why he hadn't ever stolen money from his victims, he replied, 'I am not a thief!' Of having taken their lives, he said, 'Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved.'"  This is a common way of thinking with book thieves.  They believe that their "acquisitions", of rare books, was not theft.   And who knew, as stated above, that book theft is more widespread than fine art theft.  At first I was like, "Really?".  Then a sense a pride overtook me and I was like, "Sweet!".  Weird right?  Not if you're a bibliophile.  I laughed when I read this because I never leave any items in my car visible.  Just don't want to tempt a thief to break in and take said object.  One thing I never worried about leaving in the open though, books.  I was like, "Who the hell is going to steal a book?!".  I fancied myself the last real bookie of the world, because we are as rare as the books these dealers seek. 
Long review short, too late! Lol.  I'm a dork.  I loved this book.  Not only for its fantastic and unique story and quirky characters and surrealistic situations, but because it is a book for book lovers.  There is absolutely no way you don't like this book if you are a true bookie.  I always said I was going to get every Stephen King book in hardcover.  After reading this book, I not only want every SK book in hardcover, but want every book I love in hardcover AND as 1st editions.  I can feel the spark of obsession being ignited in my boul (book soul).  I foolishly believe I can quell the flame before it consumes me, but deep down I know better...