Drive by any flea market and you will see ample evidence that for any object you can think of, there is someone somewhere assembling a collection of it. When it comes to collecting books I can easily sympathizes, up to a point. As much as I love books, as much as I've probably spent on books in my lifetime there is just no way I can see myself collecting first editions. Too expensive, too risky and too much space required. None of this, however, was a barrier to book thief extraordinaire John Charles Gilkey.
Barlett dives into the world of rare books, bibliomania and biblio larceny to tell the story of Gilkey, a genuine oddball who despite having no money, no fixed address and no clue sets out to amass a collection of first editions that will wow the world. The fact that Gilkey thinks the world will care gives a hint of what we are dealing with here. The additional fact that Gilkey steals the books and simultaneously feels aggrieved is impressive but only in the same way that it was impressive to see the driver of a Honda Civic, having cut off another car, spit on said car because the other driver dare to blow their horn. And that's one of the major hurdles of this double-spaced, generously margined book: readers will find themselves wanting to smack some sense into this dimwit.
The other main character, Ken Sanders, is an oddball of another sort but an honest and forthright oddball. He's easily one of the sanest people in the book and based on what's in the book, saner than the author. This book is written in the "Let Me Tell You How I Wrote This" style, with the author front and center telling us what she thought, felt, ate, etc. My tolerance for such ventures is low. Bartlett does a good job with this when she's ruminating on what books have meant to her, she does less well when she's telling us about all the books she read as research for this book. I'm glad her library card got a workout but a little narrative cohesion would be nice. So would a little self-awareness.
When Bartlett begins hanging out with Gilkey she seems weirdly unaware that something isn't right with him. She's trying to figure out the logic of what Gilkey does. From his first words to her it's apparent that logic isn't Gilkey's strong point so I kept wondering when Bartlett would clue in to this. When she goes to one of the bookstores Gilkey stole from with Gilkey so that Gilkey can show her how he shops, or some such silliness, I wanted to remind her that being a journalist doesn't require the removal of one's spine. Just say no, Allison. Thankfully, Ken Sanders sets her straight.
It is a rare thing to read an article in a magazine and wish it were longer. I can think of only two off the top of my head: The Miranda Obsession by Bryan Burrough and Virtual Love by Tad Friend. Not having reading Allison Hoover Bartlett's original article on the subject, I don't know if The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is eagerly awaited by readers. It's a short book and an easy read. It is also the first book I've read in which the author shares her experience of removing her bra via her shirtsleeve in her car outside a California state prison. I won't be too sad if it is the last.
Recommended for anyone interested in the world of rare books.