The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story Of A Thief, A Detective, And A World Of Literary Obsession is a story about stories, which is to say, it’s the kind of non-fiction book where a perfectly absorbing narrative is interrupted for stock authorial observations about becoming “a collector, not of books, but of pieces of this story.” From its title on down, a kind of stultifying “literary” quality unproductively stifles Allison Hoover Bartlett’s otherwise absorbing journalistic profile of the world of rare books and the people who sell, collect, and steal them. In delusional book thief John Gilkey and his nemesis Ken Sanders—part book-store owner, part self-appointed “bibliodick” hunting down thieves—Bartlett has the raw material of a strong story, and her research is impeccable. But the atmosphere surrounding them is a bit too precious. This is one book that needs less, not more, authorial presence.
Years of interviews go into Barlett’s dual profile, which isn’t quite balanced. Gilkey, a polite man whose need for rare books is part of a quest to fashion himself as a respectable, high-class member of society, is strong during the chapters focusing solely on him. Sanders, compelling in his own right, is forced to compete for page time with other rare-book dealers. Still, the problem isn’t his failure to come into focus, it’s Bartlett’s attempt to impose a strict mano-a-mano narrative that her story doesn’t actually bear out. Following her subjects over many years, Bartlett comes up with a compelling narrative in spite of the structural weaknesses. The crudity of Gilkey’s cons—semi-elaborate forms of credit-card fraud—is riveting; the trivia about the atmosphere, mentality, and history of book collectors is absorbing. As an extended magazine profile in book form, it’s solid.
But Bartlett keeps getting in her own way, imposing herself where she isn’t needed. There’s a needlessly attenuated chapter where Gilkey and Bartlett visit a bookstore where Gilkey is known as a thief, and Bartlett watches, paralyzed with embarrassment, as Gilkey and the owner play passive-aggressive games. It’s a patently non-dramatic moment, but Bartlett milks it endlessly: “How much longer would Gilkey go on?” she asks, inviting readers to wonder the same thing. Predictably, the journalistic facade fades, and in a moment that seems mandatory for hacky profiles, Bartlett dramatically announces that “no longer the objective observer, I had stepped into the plot.” This isn’t fully true: mostly, she wonders at one point whether she should call the FBI, then doesn’t do anything about it. Ultimately, Bartlett does herself credit as a journalist, but no favors as a writer.