More than 2,000 years ago the Roman man of letters Marcus Tullius Cicero complained to a friend about how much he suffered from two problems endemic to book lovers: finding the money to buy all the volumes he coveted, and protecting the ones he already had from the rapacious desires of other bibliomaniacs. In the mid-20th, century writer C.S. Lewis noted that there were three categories of objects which even otherwise highly moral people felt no urgent need to return after borrowing: packs of matches, umbrellas and books. And from the opposite perspective, no other loss, save perhaps bicycles, invokes a fury in its victims so seemingly out of proportion to the harm inflicted. Small wonder the curses circulated at the great medieval libraries fervently call down all sorts of harm, physical and spiritual, not just on thieves but on delinquent borrowers. “For him that steals,” growls the malediction of the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona, “or borrows and returns not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails. When at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”
That’s the background—bibliomania as it’s called—to Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Penguin), her tale of John Gilkey, an unrepentant, obsessive book thief, and Ken Sanders, an equally obsessive self-styled “bibliodick,” and their multi-year cat-and-mouse game. Gilkey was a retail clerk who lusted after a wealthy man’s library, so he stole one, about $100,000 worth of rare books from book fairs, stores, and libraries around the U.S. Sanders, a rare book dealer turned amateur detective, first noticed Gilkey’s patterns and then became frustrated that the police had little interest. So he set out to catch Gilkey himself. The ballad of John and Ken is absorbing enough. Rare book theft may be more prevalent than art theft, according to Interpol, but it’s not a crime most busy police forces will devote many resources to. (Unless, of course, you report the case to an unusually literate and historical-minded cop. And even then, Sanders told Hoover Bartlett, it’s the dealer who’s made to feel criminal, or at least criminally foolish. When Sanders accompanied a dealer friend to a New York precinct to report the theft of a Roger Williams book valued at $35,000, the recording sergeant first impressed them by asking, “You talking about one of the guys who founded Rhode island?” and then depressed them with, “You let someone walk away with a first-edition Roger Williams?”) Gilkey, who worked as a sales clerk at Saks in San Francisco and accomplished his thefts with credit card numbers he stole from clients, was harder to catch than most book thieves, who run the most hazard when they try to sell their loot. Gilkey had no intention of selling “his” library.
And therein lies the true charm of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (and is that Gilkey or Sanders?): the beguiling, mad, Alice-in-Wonderland world of book-collecting, book-dealing, book-loving that Hoover Bartlett falls into. Like all manias there’s something—however faint and innocent—sexual about it. Even Gilkey, an utterly unself-reflective man, touches on it when he tries to explain the attraction of looking at even photographs of well-stacked library shelves. “I’m a man,” he said. “I like to look.” But the dealers at the book fairs Hoover Bartlett visits also sound to her like “aging Lotharios” recalling their youthful conquests when they dredge up tales of fantastic past scores. Bartlett too feels the pull, the seduction rather, exerted by old leather and fragile pages, but eventually shakes off the demon of book coveting that has started to gain a claw-hold on her, and settles instead for being a collector of stories. For the author things couldn’t have come out better than they did, hearing from Sanders, as the book went to press, that Gilkey had been fingered again (though not arrested) for stealing a book from a Canadian dealer. “The story never ends.”