Book Club Spotlight- The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Cover of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. A silhouette of a man against a full bookshelf

Obviously this week, National Library Week, is the best week of the year! Celebrations include Right to Read Day, National Library Workers Day, National Library Outreach Day, and Take Action for Libraries Day. While we all know the importance of the library ecosystem, former San Francisco Library Laureate, Allison Hoover Bartlett, shares the story of what happens when greed and personal gain take over and infiltrate the book market. In her book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, Bartlett follows the trail of notorious book thief John Charles Gilkey and peeks into the psyche of those who collect rare books, and what happens when that collecting becomes a compulsion.

Allison Bartlett entered into the world of book thieves by way of coincidence. A friend had come into possession of a stolen rare book after his brother’s passing, and Allison was drawn to its mysterious pages. As she felt this pull towards the illicit book, she began researching the history of book thievery, asking: “What makes someone cross the line from admirer to thief?”. It’s not long until two names come to her attention: Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer whose obsession with catching book thieves, leads Allison to the main focus of her story, John Charles Gilkey. For John, his (stolen) book collection is not about the contents of the books themselves, but merely the status it affords him. Growing up, he dreamed of being like the upper-crust gentlemen who honed grand libraries and garnered admiration. John takes to fraud and theft to achieve this dream, growing bolder and more self-assured as his collection grows. And his curation list? The Modern Library’s List of 100 Best Novels. Follow along with the strained and strange relationship between booksellers and the titular book thief. Where each believes the other is the true criminal. 

“It wasn’t merely a love of books that compelled him, but also what owning them would say about him. It’s a normal ambition—that our choice of music or cars or shoes reflects well on us—taken to the extreme.”

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Part True Crime, part history of book collecting and fervor, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is about trying to understand the psyche of these collectors and those who experience book-collecting mania, or Bibliomania. According to Bartlett, in rare book collections, the physical properties of the books, the memories associated with the title, or the historical importance of that edition are often more valuable than the actual contents within them. Book Club Groups will love the low-stakes True Crime aspect and exploring what in the mind can drive us to place such value on having personal library collections.  

As Bartlett finds herself more entrenched in the rare book collection space, she notes that it largely consists of rich white men. While their hobbies are viewed as intellectual, there has been a trend of treating young female celebrities and models who carry around the latest literary fiction novel (“Literary It Girls”) as lesser and shallow attempts at intellectualism. But what is their real difference? Rare book collecting and John Gilkey’s obsession with the status symbol he associated with the books he stole can bring to light a much-needed discussion about the value we place on our favorite pastime, classism and maybe even a hidden misogynistic agenda.

Further Resources:

If you’re interested in requesting The Man Who Loved Books Too Much for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Bartlett, Allison Hoover. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. Riverhead Books. 2009

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