Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Allison Hoover Bartlett on "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much"

In crime wave that spanned a decade, Gilkey preyed on rare booksellers and bookstores around the country. What made Gilkey different was that he kept the valuable editions of Kerouac's “On the Road” and Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” trying to amass an impressive private collection to prove what a cultured man he is. His unlikely pursuer was a rare book collector named Ken Sanders, who tracked Gilkey for five years and cajoled the police into setting up operations to arrest him. Bartlett has created a witty and probing look at a sociopathic book thief, interviewing Gilkey in and out of prison, and found herself drawn into Gilkey’s web of rationalizations and lies as he took her on dry runs of possible thefts and tried to shape the end of her book.

Bartlett, 50, lives in San Francisco, where she spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone.

Q. When did you have the realization that the story of the book thief John Gilkey merited a book?

A. It was almost right away. A friend lent me a rare German botanical book that had been stolen. I went on the Internet and found so many instances of rare book thefts, and discovered that book theft is now more common than fine art theft. I realized it was a story that should be told.

I spoke with Ken Sanders, the Utah book dealer who pursued Gilkey. He was such a fine storyteller and passionate about catching book thieves. I then started meeting with Gilkey in 2005, when he was still in prison, wearing orange prison garb and discussing 19th century books he’d like to steal. He was willing to share his story with me and I knew that he came from a long tradition of book thieves. In many ways, Gilkey’s motivations were not that different from other collectors, he just steals the books. There is also the great irony: he is building a book collection to show that he is an erudite person, but nobody can look at it. If people find his collection, he’ll go back to jail.

(Mug shots of John Charles Gilkey...in the summer of 2011, Gilkey was again a suspect in many book thefts and frauds in northern California)

Q. Gilkey is a fascinating figure, while at the same time being a bland, almost unnoticeable person. Could you describe him?

A. Gilkey came across as a bookish sort of guy who you never thought in a million years would rob you blind. In that way, he was an expert con man. Walking around a book fair or a booksellers shop, he would look like any other collector. It was strange to be sitting across from someone, discussing so pleasantly and matter-of-factly how he really thinks he hasn’t done anything wrong and all the victims deserve it. He really fits the description of being a sociopath and a narcissist. Gilkey had a fantasy of being wealthy man with a library full of books. This desire had more to do with being looked up to than being rich.

Q. You spent three years interviewing Gilkey. Towards the end, he took you into an uncomfortable territory, taking you to a bookstore he had previously robbed and offering to steal the best 100 American novels of the 20th century to spice up your book. How did you deal with this offer?

A. It put me in a very uncomfortable position. I knew my answer would have an effect on the outcome. I said, “I am not going to answer that.” He was probably looking for encouragement, and because I didn’t encourage him, he lost interest in stealing the 100 books.

Q. Gilkey is out of prison now and has allegedly been stealing books again. Of the hundreds of books he has stolen, only about 26 have been recovered. Why can’t he be stopped?

A. People ask me why he doesn’t get a longer prison sentence. Well, there a rapists and murderers ahead of him. Stealing books is often seen as a victimless crime by the police, and the courts don’t take it seriously. Basically, Gilkey has gotten away with the bulk of his crimes.
(This piece originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in December 2009)

In her beautiful gem of a book “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession”(Riverhead, $25), Allison Hoover Bartlett tracks the career of John Gilkey, a prolific California book thief who stole at least $100,000 worth of books using stolen credit cards. Bartlett uses the strange life and career of Gilkey to explore the insular community of the rare book world and the meaning of bibliomania.

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