This weekend I finished reading a book, the first one in a while. I enjoyed it a great deal, but it was an unusual read in that, from the book’s very first page, I felt a very real connection to it. You see, my library also includes a few stolen books.
On my “old/rare books” shelf lies an 1892 edition of The Lady of the Lake, by Sir Walter Scott. A family member—enamored of its exquisite etchings—checked it out from a library in the early ’40s and just “forgot” to return it. When it came into my possession, forty years later, it was agreed by all that returning it was unnecessary. Probably.
A few other books on my shelf have sketchy backgrounds, too. One is a Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali that I didn’t ask too many questions about, and another is a large-format book of the works Michelangelo that had been so obviously mismarked at a garage sale that paying the 50¢ asking price was nothing short of theft.
And so, when in the prologue to her non-fiction bestseller, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, author and journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett describes how she came into possession of a book with a less-than-pristine provenance, I felt the echoed pangs of my own guilty conscience.
Bartlett tells of how she came to possess a centuries-old German botanical text. It was beautiful example of the bookbinder’s and printer’s crafts—hardwood boards, leather binding, brass clasps, hand-painted illustrations—and, like my The Lady of the Lake, it had been checked out of a library and never returned. This book, when paired with her unrelenting curiosity, got Bartlett to wondering about people who are so manic about collecting books that thievery is an acceptable means of acquiring the objects of their passion.
Bartlett is an investigative journalist with a long list of credentials, and she knows how to tell a good story. This story centers on Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer and the Security Chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), and John Gilkey, the man of the title, one of America’s most prolific book thieves, for whom the price of the books he loved was sometimes (okay, often) a stint behind bars.
Bartlett spent years meeting with Sanders and Gilkey, as well as dozens of other sellers and collectors, gathering the details of their intertwined stories. She brings us along on her interviews with Gilkey—in prisons, in cafes—and on her trips to rare bookshops and antiquarian book fairs. For anyone who loves books, it is a fascinating world, but Bartlett takes the time to relate more than just the facts; she shows us the minds of the participants, both through their own words and via her analysis, observations, and introspection of her own desires and passions.
For you writers out there, I recommend this book for one simple reason: it is a close-up and detailed view of the criminal mind. If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you might remember my discussion of “bad guys” and their motivations, my main view being that “bad guys” never see themselves as such. Well, Bartlett gives us a book-length look into that theory, and I found it to be revelatory as to how criminals justify their actions. It isn’t that Gilkey, the thief, knows what he is doing is wrong and has justified it; no, he doesn’t even see what he does as wrong-doing, and the mental machinations, the selective memory-making, and the level of entitlement required for this is, well, convoluted is not strong enough a word.
This is a great read for lovers of physical books and for writers that I heartily recommend.