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Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

This book is a sterling reminder of just how much I love books. Bartlett's writing was so evocative that I could picture in my mind's eye the bookshops and libraries she described, and it made me want to wander around them for hours. Her descriptions of rare books and their charms are so vivid that I can't see how any book lover could possibly fail to respond to them. As I read, I repeatedly found myself telling my husband just how amazing I thought this book was. He agreed with me. He read it first and told me how much he thought I'd like it.

What is easy to understand about this story is how a book lover could respond to the lure of a beautiful, old book. When I was in college, I had the good fortunate to take a Renaissance literature class taught by a professor who took us to see the rare books at the university library during one of our first classes. I'll never forget wearing white gloves and paging carefully through those gorgeously painted illuminated pages. It was truly an awe-inspiring experience for a bibliophile like me, and I could easily understand the charm of owning such a volume myself. Bartlett coveys how books are more than just paper and ink, they're a viable, physical link to the past. They are objects of memory, symbols of the things that we love and of the people with whom we've enjoyed them. Given this, it's easy to see how a thief could be tempted.

Equally interesting was the story of Gilkey. I agreed with Bartlett in that it was difficult to decide if the man was amoral or suffering from some sort of mental disorder. His obvious disconnection from reality is startling. Were I in Bartlett's shoes while interviewing him for this book, I think I would have been too shocked by him for any sort of coherent speech. It was unfathomable that he could view his crimes as being victimless, that he could fail to understand how his books thefts impacted those who, like him, have a high regard for books but, unlike him, obtain them in legal and ethical ways. Gilkey is an interesting criminal and also an alarming one. While his crimes may not be violent, I found it disturbing to think that a criminal with so little conscience could exist. He's the antihero who fancies himself the hero.

It was also disturbing to me to realize just how little publicity book thefts get. Why is it that when art goes missing, it's a top story, but when invaluable books like this are lost, there's hardly a peep? That books have power is obvious, as made plain by Bartlett's comments about past and current attempts at banning and burning "subversive" literature. I was baffled by how law enforcement can treat the theft of a $5,000 book so casually, when the theft of a TV of the same value would clearly not be something treated with so little concern. What an odd contradiction.

This is a book that I will be sure to recommend to my fellow book lovers. I was utterly fascinated by it from the first page until the very last.

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