Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What Lengths Would You Go for a Book? Would You Steal?

John Gilkey has an aspiration for his life: to own a first edition of every book on Modern Library’s list of Top 100 novels.

The trouble is that Gilkey has no intention of buying any of these books, which include writings by authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabakov, Virginia Woolf, and more.

Instead, he has tried to acquire them in another way: through theft. It’s a journey that has let Gilkey “own” many modern masterpieces – but has also sent him to jail for extended periods of time.

In her fascinating new book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective and a World of Literary Obsession, San Francisco writer Allison Hoover Bartlett has told the tale of unrepentant book thief John Gilkey and the rare book dealer who chased him down. The cat-and-mouse game is played out against the backdrop of antiquarian book fairs in San Francisco and New York, featuring manuscripts worth thousands of dollars and book collectors who will go to any length to possess a particular tome.

Bestselling author Erik Larson characterized Bartlett’s book as “compelling.” Novelist Larry McMurtry called it “a fine read.”

I concur. I gobbled up the book in less than 48 hours, swept away by Bartlett’s taut narrative that has book dealer Ken Saunders chasing an elusive Gilkey, who grew up in Modesto, and who has a sketchy work history but a stunning criminal resume.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much will be published Sept. 17, but I have five galleys to give away. Just email me at if you are interested in the book. Tell me a bit about your favorite book to help me choose the winners.

In one riveting scene, Bartlett describes standing outside 49 Geary Street in San Francisco with Gilkey on a bright September morning in 2005 as he explained his philosophy of “book collecting” to her. The building was once the West Coast headquarters of Western Union, but it now houses more than 20 art galleries as well as three antiquarian book stores. Gilkey has filched a copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy from one of the stores, Brick Row Book Shop, and wanted to give Bartlett a tour, almost as if he was the proud owner of this store.

“I was still wary, but too curious to walk away from an opportunity to see Gilkey in his element,” writes Bartlett. “What sort of person returns to the scene of his crime?”

What kind of person does that? Part of what makes The Man Who Loved Books Too Much so fascinating is how Bartlett tries to get inside Gilkey’s mind to understand what drives him to steal rare books – which he generally doesn’t read – and how he feels absolutely no guilt about his crimes.

Read it yourself to find out more.

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