The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

By Allison Hoover Bartlett

Bartlett’s detective story features John Gilkey, an unemployed book collector and thief; Ken Sanders, rare book dealer and amateur sleuth; and herself, as narrator and interviewer of, and friend to, Gilkey and Sanders.

Gilkey gets caught, time and again, stealing books. He utilizes stolen credit card receipts to order rare books by phone, arranging pickups at public places, such as hotels, under whatever name appears on the receipt. His times in jail are brief or nonexistent, as his cases are often dismissed as unimportant. If out on bail, he goes right back to stealing before his next court appearance. He supports himself by occasionally selling to a dealer a book stolen from another dealer.

The author likens Gilkey to Sigmund Freud’s description of collecting as “second only in intensity to nicotine addiction,” the pleasure of which comes from the sense of conquest. Gilkey “gets” books (he never says “steals”) just to own them, and for the impression his “library” will make on others:

I like the feel of having a book worth five or ten grand in my hands. And there’s that sense of admiration you’re gonna get from other people.

And most striking, he collected books to feel “grand, regal, like royalty, rich, cultured.”


Sanders is Gilkey’s Javert. He never gives up, and persistence finally pays off, and Gilkey’s activities appear to be curtailed. The police raid his home, and find it chock-a-block with rare books. However, the author reveals that Gilkey has another “library” in another location, never disclosed, and the book ends:

Not long before this book went to press, Sanders, nominally retired “bibliodick,” had nevertheless alerted colleagues of Gilkey’s most recent theft: stealing a book from a Canadian dealer. Gilkey was not arrested. The story never ends.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett. Riverhead Books, 2009.

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