The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story Of A Thief, A Detective, And A World Of Literary Obsession, by Allison Hoover Barlett
As it without a doubt that I love books too much , it would probably be easy to think that this book was talking about someone like myself. Thankfully, for me, that is not the case. This particular book deals with the world of book collecting, and while I collect a great many books, the volumes in my collection, for the most part, would not be the sort of books that would lead one to become an AABA book shop owner nor someone whose obsessive love of collecting books would lead one into prison in most countries (Thailand excepted, sadly). This book was enjoyable to read as someone whose books are far more practical and far less literary in taste than most of what is discussed here, but given my fondness for purchasing volumes from Abebooks, I suspect I am already at least part of the world that is talked about here given my own dealings with such AABA book shop owners of high repute (some of whom are discussed here). At any rate, I saw this book as a somewhat tangential but interesting account of other people who are in my world of bookish folk, and it met my expectations and more.
For the most part, this book is a parallel biography of sorts of two men who both share an obsession for books and have tangled over their different view of law and morality. John Gilke is the book thief, whose inventive means of stealing books through credit card fraud in order to build an enviable collection that would cause others to see him as a cultured and intelligent man. Ken Saunders, on the other hand, is the dogged bibliodick who hunts down book thieves with grim determination. The cat and mouse game between the two of them is remarkable, and while the book seller from Utah who is at least nominally retired from his position as head of AABA security is far more appealing, one is struck by the way that books draw such passion from people for different reasons. Books are discussed for their material value, for their content, for their materiality as objects, for their smell and odd features and for the way that they serve as tokens of wealth and success, and the end result is to show how what make someone an obsessive book thief is a certain narcissism, given the fact that book collectors (and collectors in general) tend to be a fairly obsessive lot of people anyway, although not all of us maliciously so.
There is a lot to like about the book, although some readers may be turned off by the way that the author inserts herself into the story. As is the case with many books that spring from contemporary journalism, the journalist feels it necessary to insert herself into the story. Would this have been a better book if it was less personal? I’m not sure, except that modern journalism has a narcissistic tendency that lends itself to covering other narcissists like the titular book thieving criminal of this particular book. Speaking for myself, at least, I found the intrusion of the author into the story only slightly irritating, and not enough to mar the compelling story and the world of high end book collectors and wannabes rather well. For myself, I do not see a great deal of attraction in the sort of first volume collecting that is done by many of the people discussed in the book, but since I read and review mostly pre-publication and first edition material myself I suppose that without any evident desire to enter into such a world that I do so as a matter of course. Such is the thug life, I suppose.
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