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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Loving Books Too Much

In a photo I posted the other day, I'm brandishing a copy of a book called The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, which is subtitled The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. Written by Allison Hoover Bartlett, The Man Who.... is a wonderful look into the darker side of book collecting.

I've always found book collecting fascinating, even if I am such a low-level collector myself that I'm not sure the word collecting can even apply to me. I suppose I'm more of a gatherer. I am generally uninterested in tracking down first editions of books I want, preferring handsome, sturdy volumes of any edition that I can read. That's the thing, for me: although I may well never get round to reading all of the books I own, I can honestly say that there is not a single book on my shelves that I didn't acquire under the thought that I might one day like to read it.

This isn't to say that I won't purchase books on the basis of their attractiveness or their age; I do this on occasion, but almost always for bargain prices at my beloved library book sale, and even then, I don't buy books purely on the basis of their age or editions. I own four or five complete Shakespeares, several of which are quite old, but this is because in my view you can't have too many complete Shakespeares. One in every room, and all that. I pass by lots of gorgeous volumes that may well be "collectible", because their content does not interest me one whit.

Book collectors, on the other hand -- the true collectors -- acquire their books for other reasons. Age, relevance to a certain topic, rarity, and so on. Here is how Bartlett describes the collector's approach:

Walking by a booth with an impressive selection of dust jacket art, I heard a dealer say to a passerby, "Don't judge a book by its content!" I had read enough about book collectors before the fair to get the joke: Many collectors don't actually read their books. At first, I was surprised, but having given it some thought, it's not so shocking. After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books' physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories -- we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on.

For me, the most important book-as-object from my childhood is Charlotte's Web, the first book I mail-ordered after joining a book club. I still remember my thrill at seeing the mailman show up with it at our front door on a sunny Saturday morning. It had a crisp paper jacket, unlike the plastic-covered library books I was used to, and the way the pages parted, I could tell I was the first to open it. For several days I lived in Wilbur's world, and the only thing as sad as Charlotte's death, maybe even sadder, was that I had come to the end of the book. I valued that half-dream state of being lost in a book so much that I limited the number of pages I let myself read each day in order to put off the inevitable end, my banishment from that world. I still do this. It doesn't make sense, though, because the pleasure of that world does not really end for good. You can always start over on page one -- and you can remember.

I'm always a bit saddened when I look through the childrens' books at the library sales, and find volume after volume with inscriptions inside the front covers, inscriptions like "To Annie, I hope you like this book, Love, Grandma." Grandma took time to pick the book and write something nice inside, and yet, this physical emblem of a grandparent's love for their grandchild has been packed up and sent off to the library book sale. Yes, I'm likely guilty of this myself; I remember some books that my own grandmothers gave me back when they were alive, and I'm not sure a single one still lurks in some corner of my parents' house.

But back to The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. Bartlett's book focuses on a single book collector named John Gilkey and the illegal methods he used to collect his books, and a bookseller named Ken Sanders who finds himself tracking Gilkey's thefts. Gilkey pays for books with bad checks; he gets a job in a retail establishment and then steals his own customers' credit card numbers to buy more books; he lies his way through meetings with booksellers and even involves his own father as a dupe to pick up books so he can't be traced himself. And Sanders is tracking him all the while, even as he constantly bemoans the fact that law enforcement people apparently don't take book theft all that seriously.

The Man Who.... is actually, at its heart, a character study about these two men: the criminal who desperately wants an amazing book collection as a status symbol and who engages in some pretty breathtaking justifications of his crimes (he seems to genuinely believe that he has a right to the books he steals), and the crusty bookseller who wants nothing more than a big legal victory against one of the country's most brazen book thieves. Bartlett interviews both men at length, even going into prison to talk with Gilkey, who is in and out of jail so often that it's clear he simply views it as part of the cost of doing business.

I may never be the type of person to spend several hundred dollars for an edition of some book; I'm just not wired that way. I'll never completely understand the impulse of someone who wants to spend that much on a book that they have no real interest in reading, but even so, the book-collecting world is a fascinating one to look into on occasion.


M. D. Jackson said...

Have you read any John Dunning? He's a mystery writer, but his detective, Cliff Janeway, is a rare book collector. BOOKED TO DIE and THE BOOKMAN'S WAKE are two of the titles. I think you'd like them.

Jason said...

I've actually met Ken Sanders... his shop is only two blocks from my place of employment. He's a pretty colorful character and something of a local celebrity. Well, maybe not a celebrity, but most everyone around here seems to know who he is, and he's definitely a striking figure if you see him on the street with his long ZZ Top-style beard.

Sounds like a good book; I'll have to pick it up.

Jay said...

Oh, the Lure of the Books! Yep, I'm with you on that too. I do have some 'collectible' copies and signed first editions, but not many, and only books I really, really love (like Terry Pratchett). And I'm sorry, but while together we own thousands of books, there's not one single copy of Shakespeare. Not one. H G Wells, yes. Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Winnie the Pooh, yes. No Shakespeare.

Neither of us like him.

Ducks and runs.