This book made me realize I don’t really love books. I love reading and that is not the same thing, although I’d never really thought about it much before reading this book.
This is the true story of John Gilkey, a book thief. Gilkey steals rare or valuable books. The thing that sets him apart from other book thieves is that the primary driving force behind his crimes is that he loves books. He doesn’t love reading them as much as he sees them as a status symbol. He believes that if he amasses a collection of valuable books people will see him as someone who is intelligent, educated and worldly.
The other characters in the book are the rare book dealers and collectors from whom Gilkey steals. They are similar to Gilkey in that many of them love books for themselves, not necessarily to read. They love the thrill of the hunt for a very rare book and they appreciate the physical beauty of certain books. They may also love to read, but that’s not necessarily why they collect books.
The author, Allison Hoover Bartlett, does a very nice job of revealing Gilkey’s character. He’s an interesting person because he is pathologically self-absorbed. He sees the world as fundamentally unfair because he wants valuable books, yet cannot afford them. He blames his crimes on the dealers who have the books he wants but somehow thwart him by pricing them out of his reach. Even after multiple convictions and jail sentences he appears to be unrepentant. In one amazing scene, he revisits one of the dealers he stole from to demonstrate to Bartlett his technique (he doesn’t steal but is showing her how he would look for a book he was interested in). He is amazed to find that the dealer is somewhat less than happy to have him in his store again.
Bartlett also does a good job of examining what drives not only Gilkey but others to collect. This was almost as hard for me to understand as Gilkey’s view about crime. I am just not a collector and never have really understood the passion some people have for it. I have particularly never really understood people who look at books as objects rather than as something to be read.
I love reading. I am one of those people who take books with me anytime I leave the house, just in case. I read when I’m brushing my teeth, when I’m stopped at a stoplight, when ever I have a free minute. If I’m stuck in a bathroom without reading material, I’ll read the shampoo bottles. So I understand the drive to read.
I often think the idea of a bookcase full of leather-bound books used for decor is just wrong. Books are meant to be read, not looked at. I imagine the books in the library that don’t get checked out as being sad. I’m not particularly nice to my books. I read them in the bathtub and dog-ear the corners. Many of them will have stains on them from being read during a meal.
Once when I was in England, I saw A. A. Milne’s original manuscripts for The House at Pooh Corner. I remember being thrilled to see those beloved words in Milne’s actual handwriting. The Dark is Rising is my favorite series from childhood. I have the same set that I read for the first time in fourth grade. I have read it countless times. I love to re-read it because it’s a great story but also because it is comforting to me. The words themselves take me back to moments in the past when I read them before. Holding the same physical book that I’ve held so many times before is part of that feeling. So I do understand love of books as well as love of reading. But for me if there wasn’t the personal or sentimental connection to the physical book, then I don’t have that same feeling.
Bottomline is this is a fascinating book on many levels. It’s an interesting study of a criminal mind. It’s a peek into the world of rare book collectors. And for someone who loves books or reading, it’s thought-provoking as to what exactly it is you love and why.