Sunday, October 04, 2009

Book Review: "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much"

Allison Hoover Bartlett has turned her 2006 San Francisco Magazine article "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" into a book by the same name (Riverhead, 2009). The subject is John Charles Gilkey, longtime book thief and crook-of-all-trades, who has stolen (and most likely continues to steal) from book dealers and libraries around the world. Bartlett widens her scope to encompass those who've sought to put a stop to Gilkey's thieving ways, most notably book dealer Ken Sanders. And she includes herself in the story, becoming a part of the Gilkey saga in ways I suspect she never anticipated when she began the research for what would become this book.

In many ways similar to Miles Harvey's superb The Island of Lost Maps (which treats map thief Gilbert Bland), The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is dissimilar in one crucial respect: the thief talked. Bartlett met with Gilkey multiple times over a two-year period, and was able to add his perspective to her work. That perspective adds much to the work, even though it quickly becomes clear that Gilkey's playing Bartlett the same way he'd played every employer, book dealer, and librarian he's had dealings with.

Gilkey's willingness not only to talk with Bartlett but also to boast about his crimes even directly in the faces of his victims is quite stunning. He and Bartlett even go so far as to visit Brick Row Book Shop, where owner John Crichton (who's lost books to Gilkey in the past) recognizes Gilkey and is forced to look on as the thief, his reporter in tow, browses his stock and complains loudly about the practices of book dealers.

Gilkey stole, at least at first, almost exclusively from book dealers. From his conversations with Bartlett, she gathered that this seemed to be because he felt that because he loved books, he ought to be able to have whichever ones he wanted: "for Gilkey," she writes, "'fairness' seemed to be a synonym for 'satisfaction': if he is satisfied, all is deemed fair; if not, it isn't" (p. 50). Because he wanted the books, he said, he ought to be able to get them, and if he could get them for free, all the better. By stealing credit card receipts and calling in orders using the snagged numbers, or passing bad checks, Gilkey accumulated thousands of books from shops up and down the West Coast. Bartlett writes that he seemed to have no concept of the fact that what he was doing was wrong - he didn't seem to think that stealing from dealers could possibly be inappropriate (although, as she notes, he did seem careful not to use words like 'steal,' 'prison,' or 'theft'. "Instead, he 'got' books and has been 'away' for 'doing that.'").

Naturally, things progressed, and even during the course of reporting for the book, Bartlett learned that Gilkey had begun stealing maps and other rare materials from libraries: on p. 181, she writes that she asked the thief "'Have you ever taken a book from the library?' ... Gilkey looked incredulous. 'No,' he said. 'That would be stealing.' I had no idea what to say." By p. 240, he's admitted to stealing dust jackets and cutting maps out of library books. "So much for not stealing from the library," Bartlett notes. This wasn't the only crime Gilkey confessed to Bartlett, but she writes that it was the first one that made her question whether she ought to inform someone. And here's where she ran off the rails, as far as I'm concerned.

Bartlett writes that she consulted several lawyer friends, as well as her literary agent's attorney, about whether she had an obligation to inform the authorities of Gilkey's crimes. They told her she had no legal obligation. Bartlett: "But what about ethical responsibility? The difference between the two was as blurry as my role, which had shifted from observer to participant in Gilkey's story. Did I owe this information to dealers, who had been so helpful with my research? But if I notified them of these thefts, wouldn't Gilkey keep all future and possibly more significant thefts from me? ... I found myself teetering between selfishness and benevolence: either reveal the secrets Gilkey had shared with me, probably losing access to him and possibly sending him to jail, or keep them to myself and be unjust to his victims. I tried to reassure myself that such consequences were not directly my responsibility." Two months later, Bartlett says, she called the FBI and talked to Art Crime Team head Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who explained the circumstances in which federal agencies would get involved with book crimes. Asked directly "You'd tell me if the the book thief had stolen anything, right?" Bartlett said she would, but failed to inform Magness-Gardiner of several unprosecuted thefts (plus credit card fraud) she knew of ... justifying this, she said, with the fact that she later determined that the statute of limitations had passed (p. 241-42).

While whatever library crimes Gilkey confessed to Bartlett probably weren't federal offenses, for her to slough off the responsibility of reporting them so easily and carelessly is absolutely reprehensible, and to have literally lied to the FBI about thefts of which she was aware is pretty rotten as well. She ought to be ashamed of herself.

Bartlett chronicles Gilkey's run from both his perspective and from the viewpoints of those he victimized and those who sought to catch him. Her interview with still furious (and justifiably so) dealer Lane Heldfond is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and her profile of Gilkey pursuer Ken Sanders is mostly fair and appropriately-drawn. She pads the narratives with tales of past bibliomaniacs (many of which are straight from Basbanes' A Gentle Madness), and with material from some recent works on collecting. She tries to present Gilkey as someone interested in books and literature, and it's clear that he is that, but at heart he is also a con man and a thief, pure and simple. He likes getting things for free (travel, hotels, food, as well as books), and he feels no remorse in getting away with illegal activities. Bartlett also adds some revealing information (which again points to the notion that she was getting far too chummy with her subject, I think); he starts telling her that he's thinking up "a grand finale," a way to obtain all 100 books from the Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. He's a showman, an attention-seeker, an incorrigible thief. That he happens to like books doesn't make him any more likeable, it makes him that much more dangerous to all of us to sell, protect, collect and love them.

This is a well-written book, that tells a good story. Kudos to Bartlett for getting Gilkey to talk. But reading about his lies, his crimes, his manipulations of those around him just made my skin crawl. He deserves to be in prison for the rest of his life.

As Bartlett notes in the afterword, Gilkey couldn't be stopped: just before the book went to press, he stole a book from a Canadian dealer. I'm sure it's not the last time.