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Allison Hoover Bartlett: The man who loved books too much

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An interesting item this time: The man who loved books too much by Allison Hoover Bartlett.

This book is not something I would usually have picked up, and I did in fact buy it thinking it would be something else. Whereas I was expecting a thriller, it is actually more of a documentary on the book collection industry.

It is the story of a book thief, Charles Gilkey. The author tells the story of the hunt for Charles Gilkey and the man who has caught him, Ken Sanders.
Besides the obvious - the hunt for a criminal - what makes the book interesting is the fact that Mrs. Bartlett does extensive interviews over time with Gilkey, Sanders and others in the book collecting business. This yields some interesting insights.
For one thing, Gilkey is not actually a reader, and this seems to be the case with a lot of the book collectors. He is much more interested in owning the objects, much as one would want a sculpture or a painting. And of course, since the value of these items is huge, one would never actually touch them. Several of the book collectors interviewed in the book talk about having their collection and reading books… but of course, not reading the collection books, for they are for safekeeping.

Ken Sanders is elected the security chair of ABAA, Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. In this capacity, he receives and distributes warnings about scammers and thieves. Selling collectors’ items in this business would be as complicated as unloading a stolen race horse or the Mona Lisa, if not for the fact that the booksellers seem to be extremely private with their information, and a lot of Sanders’ efforts go into lobbying the business to share their experiences about the people ripping them off.
Interestingly, Sanders comments on the fact that it is a challenge to make the police take this kind of crime seriously, even if the value of the first edition of a classic can get extremely high.

Gilkey’s personality adds a lot of flavor to the story. A man with a well-behaved and cultured appearance, he manages to cheat the booksellers out of works of a considerable value. A little way into the story, he is caught, imprisoned, released - and goes back to stealing books again! Over time as the author talks to Gilkey, he seems increasingly insistent that life owes him. Whenever he is arrested, put in prison or just slowed down by events, he feels that life owes him another success. And so, he goes at it again.

It seems clear that Allison Hoover Bartlett start out trying to find out how this collectors’ mentality actually works; and while going into this, she not only comes across some fascinatingly bizarre/bizarrely fascinating personalities, but also gets into the business in such a way that she can’t help exploring it more deeply. The book is a spinoff of an award-winning magazine article, which she decided to expand upon.

Sometimes I feel a poor book critic for insisting on writing about books that I like. I have, in fact, finished a lot of books that I don’t like - with a few exceptions (yes, Jean Auel, I am looking at you here). I am the kind of reader who keeps going, because a lot of books start out slowly and gradually gain speed or the author feels that the right approach is to (very) gradually home in on the main theme, and if that takes the first 100 pages, well, so be it. What this also sometimes means is that you will keep going, hoping for more… and keep going… and hoping… and the book ends. So be it. But I can’t be bothered to write about those, in part because it depresses me, and in part because there is no reason to emphasize the negative when I can just as well praise those who deserve it.
And so, to make a long story short(er): I rather like this book. I am sure that the ‘I’ form will annoy a lot of readers deeply, as recently discussed on the Litopia podcast - an author interviewing people, gathering the puzzle pieces of a story and then telling them from a first-person perspective, talking about the characters, but also about her own reactions: Fascination, doubt, frustration and just that little bit of collectors’ mania, which all the people she interviews have.
I quite like her personal approach, and I recommend the book to those who have accumulated a lot of books as readers and are just a little bit curious about the darker side of collecting.

Bibliographic references are available from the Open Library page on this book.

Written by mjjzf

March 8th, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Literate Lifestyle

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