By Allison Hoover Bartlett
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!