BROOKE GLADSTONE: The thing-ness of books is a sensual experience of sight, smell, feel. How much more intense when a book is old, that carries its years, its proximity to its writer within its faded bindings. That’s why people obsess over old books and why they steal them. Book theft is rampant. Most steal to sell, but one of the nation’s greatest book thieves just wanted a rich man’s library, and he has spent his life armed with stolen credit card numbers and punctuated by stretches in the slammer, stealing what he coveted. In her new book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Alison Hoover Bartlett profiles John Gilkey, a man for whom books were building blocks for a whole new identity.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: As a child, he watched the Sherlock Holmes movies and he fell in love with this idea that you could be a gentleman with a grand library and that people would be impressed by this. And so, his goal was to convey to the world just how cultured and erudite he wanted to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, his books didn't follow any particular pattern.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: No, he did steal books that he had read that he liked. Sometimes they were mysteries or detective novels or 19th century novels. And then he shifted to following a list from the Modern Library. It was a list of the best 100 novels in the English language. A lot of collectors follow lists. Where he’s really different is that he stepped over to the dark side, as the “bibliodick,” or book detective in my book described him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The “bibliodick” you mentioned, arguably the Sherlock Holmes of book thievery, is -
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: [LAUGHS] Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - a Salt Lake City bookstore owner named Ken Sanders.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: Well, he has a rare bookstore in Salt Lake City, but he was also working as the security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, the ABAA. In his mind there’s [LAUGHS], there is almost nothing more wrong than stealing books. And what would happen is when one of his colleagues would have a book stolen, they would immediately notify Sanders and Sanders would then alert the rest of the trade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did he catch him?
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: He caught him, Gilkey, that is, by communicating with everybody to be on the lookout for certain conversations that he would have, the manner that he spoke, what he would ask for, so that at one point, when one of his colleagues believed that he might have Gilkey on the line – of course, Gilkey never used his own name; he would use the name of a credit card holder – that dealer knew to contact Sanders. And then a sting was put into place with the help of law enforcement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If Ken Sanders, his adversary, thinks stealing books is the worst thing in the world, Gilkey feels the opposite, that if he can't afford it, he deserves to take it.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: He told me that when he walks into a rare bookshop and sees all these treasures there, that he almost views it as the personal property of the bookstore owner and thinks, how unfair; this person has so many books. I just want [LAUGHS] a few of them. The insurance company will pay them back. And so people are going to steal, and if you’re going to have a business –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - you have to expect it, and those things are going to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like the weather.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: Exactly. [LAUGHS] It was strange. And sometimes he would describe a theft and say, because he'd have somebody else go pick up the book, well, I didn't steal from them, somebody else picked up the book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about Gilkey’s life.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: He lives in San Francisco. It’s a far cry from the, the sort of house with a grand library that he dreams of. For a while, while he was on parole in San Francisco – and he still is, by the way, I think through this year – he was living in a little fleabag motel. And he’s never held a job for very long. He has a degree in economics. He spends a lot of his days going to the library, doing research about books, and he’s always got a big file with him with notes of books that he’s thinking of getting, as he said – he would never say steal – and writings that he’s doing. He wrote an homage to one of the authors whose books he's stolen, John Kendrick Bangs. He wrote a play based on that man’s work. So he’s writing and reading a lot, and that was one of the qualities that I admired in him. Here he was, clever and hardworking and ambitious and curious, and I always thought, if he could only [LAUGHING] apply these attributes to something worthwhile, or at least legal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You remember having an odd reaction when describing Gilkey’s life of periodic arrests to a friend, and she responded, how sad.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: Yeah, I realized that it wasn't actually all that sad, that he was making progress with this goal. He was slowly amassing a large library. He was interrupted frequently [LAUGHS] by these stints in prison. But, you know, he got a great deal of satisfaction from the pursuit of the collection. And while it may look sad, and certainly angers a lot of people, the way that he’s living, I think he has achieved some measure of success along the way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a man who, in the pursuit of his criminal occupation, [LAUGHS] has enrolled in college courses to study existentialism, who’s studied Iris Murdoch, who’s become an expert in his field. Some of the best parts of who he is, one could argue, come from the worst parts.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: Yeah. You know, the first time I met him was in prison. He was dressed in his orange prison garb and seated behind a Plexiglass window. We were in one of those booths. And yet, there he was just discussing the 19th-century novels [LAUGHS] that he had stolen. And I thought this juxtaposition of the bookish and the criminal was just fascinating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Allison, thank you very much.
ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Allison Hoover Bartlett is author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, in bookstores now.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, novels about war that blend fact and fiction and books about pimps and dope fiends that do the same. This is On the Media from NPR.