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I make no bones about it that I have certain ‘weaknesses’. That I can put on my Rob Gordon hat and prattle away into the wee hours about the best Stones record, that Volume IV will change your life, why any true outsider art will always be better than Basquiat, or the psychologically damaging ramifications of not reorganizing my books and records at least twice a year. These are obsessions and I encourage you to walk softly, perhaps even shield your eyes from time to time, while viewing.
If you don’t quite know the difference between a hobbyist and a collector, a fetishist and enthusiast, allow me to introduce to you Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much . Bartlett takes the reader through the fascinating, obsessive, and somewhat narcissistic world of Rare Book Collecting. Tread softly reader, this is heavy stuff.
Ostensibly, this book is about a book thief, John Gilkey. Gilkey is not your typical antagonist. Nothing about him seems typical, as Bartlett’s observations and interviews reveal. From their initial meeting at a prison, Gilkey was pleasant, well spoken, even charming. But throughout the book we realize just how complex this individual is. He speaks about ‘acquiring’ books rather than stealing them, how he felt spurned that collectors had such a wide array of valuable books and he did not. He constructed a delusional morality that allowed him a guilt free carnival of theft.
Although the book revolves around Gilkey, the tangents and observations Bartlett makes are what really captured me. She dives in head first into what can only be described as a coven of finicky collectors, sellers, and appraisers of rare and valuable books. The stories about some books can fill volumes. Monastic books smuggled out during fires or raids; German erotica secreted away, dodging the eyes of the papacy; first pressings lost in trunks and crates during moves; ancient apocrypha passed down through the generations, traveling overseas with minimal damage.
If you like detective books, this one is for you. If you like True Crime, read this. If you enjoy books so much, you just want to read about other books and the people who are paralyzed by their obsession (a ‘bibliomaniac’) take a gander.