Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"The Man Who Loved Books Too Much"

By Allson Hoover Bartlett
288 pages
Published September 2009 by Penguin Group
Source: ARC from the Publisher

Several years ago, a friend of Allison Hoover Bartlett showed her a twelve pound book, published in 1630, that he had discovered while sorting through his brother's belongings after the brother died. The brother left a note stating that the book was given to him by a female who stated that she had checked it out from a library but had neglected to return it. She had wanted the brother to return it. Now it was up to the friend to return it. Ms. Bartlett couldn't stop thinking about the book and asked to borrow it for a while, and began looking into where it the story of the book. This led her into the world of rare book dealers, a world that included Ken Sanders, rare book dealer, and John Gilkey, rare book thief.

Gilkey is an unrepentant thief who believes that he is entitled to steal the books because he needs them to achieve his goals and can't acquire them in any other way. Sanders, who became the security head an association of rare book dealers, is fanatical in his efforts to put not only Gilkey but all book thieves away. Once Sanders tells Bartlett the story of Gilkey, she is hooked on this particular man and first visits him in jail to get his side of the story. Because this type of theft usually only garners a short sentence, Gilkey is soon out of jail and more than eager to continue to tell Bartlett his story. Over the next few years, Bartlett continues to interview Gilkey, Sanders, and other rare book dealers as well as doing extensive research on their world.

This book is the culmination of that research, although it is not the culmination of the story. Bartlett finally comes to believe that she understands Gilkey's motives but is never able to pinpoint exactly what makes someone make the leap from rabid bibliomaniac to thief. She, herself, is concerned, early on, that she could even become an avid collector if she begins purchasing first editions. The book is loaded with examples of book theft and book collectors from the earliest books to the present as well as Gilkey's story. Bartlett, who began thinking the story would be nothing more than a magazine article before deciding it will become a book, immerses herself so deeply into the story that she puts herself in the position of wondering whether or not she is obstructing justice and perhaps becoming too close to her subject.

Bartlett explains the sensory allure of the books as she walked through a rare book fair:

"..the feel of think, rough-edged pages, the sharp beauty of type, the tightness of linen or pigskin covers, the papery smell."

One of my favorite stories in the book was that of collector Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick, a botany professor in the 1930's. When he died in 1952, he had to sleep on an Army cot in his kitchen because his house was so full of books. So many books that his Nebraska house exceeded the building code maximum load. Fitzpatrick had accumulated 90 tons of books!

So powerful are books that leaders of different nations and ages have repeatedly destroyed them. Bartlett writes:

"The fearsome urge to destroy or suppress books is an acknowledgment of their power, and not only that of august scientific, political, and philosophical texts, but of small, quiet books of poetry and fiction, which nonetheless hold great capacity to change us."

This is a work of non-fiction and can be a bit dry at times. Other times, Bartlett seemed to be repeating herself. But I was learning so much and found the world of rare books so interesting that the story of Gilkey took a back seat for me. I recommend this book for any one with an interest in the world and history of books.

Bartlett gave me hope for the survival of the physical book when she explained their appeal this way:

"...much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books' physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories - we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on. "

Thanks to Lydia of Riverbend Books for allowing me to delve into this aspect of the book world!

21 comments:

  1. Wow, awesome review as always.

    //"So powerful are books that leaders of different nations and ages have repeatedly destroyed them. Bartlett writes:

    "The fearsome urge to destroy or suppress books is an acknowledgment of their power, and not only that of august scientific, political, and philosophical texts, but of small, quiet books of poetry and fiction, which nonetheless hold great capacity to change us.""

    SO true, I really love this quote!

    I am not a non-fiction fan, but this one surely has my interest!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just another book that every time I read a review I tell myself "MUST-READ-NOW!!" and then I forget. It just sounds so fascinating! I love this kind of NF, too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This book sounds fascinating to me! I love books, but know nothing about their history. Great review.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I haven't read many reviews of this that were totally positive. But, wow, 90 tons of books! I'm kind of interested in finding out how that could happen!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow! Great review! This book really sounds so interesting. The idea of stealing books in order to achieve your goals is crazy to me, but very intriguing. And the man who had 90 tons of books - OMG! That is just too intense. I mean, I love books too and I have a lot of them, but I don't think I would ever have enough to the point where I would have to sleep in my bath tub just to fit them in my home. Wow!! I have this on my TBR list and am really excited to read it now. Thanks! Happy Thanksgiving!!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I loved this book! It opened my eyes to a world that I, as a book lover, didn't know too much about. Great review ~

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love anything that has to do with books so I'm sure that I would enjoy this. That passage on physical books is very reassuring.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've had this one on my wish list for a while. I love books, but it's hard for me to imagine being driven to steal them. The man who broke the building code makes me feel better about my collection of books. :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. I need to write my review on this one and several more. Glad you enjoyed it; me too.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Terrific review, Lisa! I want to read this book so much! I have read several reviews on it and they all make the book seem more interesting and one I would really enjoy. To accumulate 90 tons of books as Fitzpatrick did is AMAZING! I love books but I don't want to be sleeping on a cot in my kitchen because I have no room for me! LOL

    ReplyDelete
  11. I didn't realize that this was non-fiction. I think it would be pretty amazing to read about the history of some of these rare books for sure.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I have this book in my TBR pile so I loved your review. Can't wait to read it now!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I hope one day to read this book. It sounds like something I would really like. I love the story of how the author came to write this book. We get our inspiration sometimes from the most unexpected places.

    Thanks for your great review.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Lisa,
    In my usual cheeky Aussie way Ive given you an award

    ReplyDelete
  15. Great Review! The review read like it was a fictional work, I am not a big fan of NF, but I may have to check this out based on your review, it sounds very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I've been having a love affair with books since I was a little girl. I'm happy to know I'm not the only one. xo

    ReplyDelete
  17. This definitely sounds like my kind of book, dryness and all! It goes on the list for sure. I have more than a passing interest in book collecting. Ever heard of the the Bookman mystery series by John Dunning? They are just great if you want fiction in this vein.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This one's been on my tbr list for awhile. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  19. It was really fascinating learning about the world of rare books, wasn't it?

    ReplyDelete
  20. This was a really interesting book and I enjoyed it also. The quotes you included in your review were great!

    ReplyDelete