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Allison Hoover Bartlett: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Allison Hoover Bartlett is the author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. Bartlett digs into the true-crime story of John Gilkey, the obsessed rare book thief and Ken Sanders, the self-appointed "bibliodick" driven to catch him. Bartlett has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon.com, and other publications. Her original article on John Gilkey was included in the Best American Crime Reporting 2007.

You write that Gilkey views rare books as markers of wealth and influence—that he was building not just a collection of books, but an image of himself. I would think that a lot of people could relate that, to the extent that books you read are a marker of identity. What do you think of the voyeurism of social book sites, like LibraryThing, which some members use to show off their personal libraries?

Building a library has always been a fairly private endeavor, but I think it's wonderful that those who love to read can now find like-minded people to share their passion with. Showing off may be part of the pleasure for some, and creating identity is probably a common, if subconscious, aspect of building a library publicly, but I believe the primary motivation for being active on these sites is to exchange impressions, suggestions, and the excitement of discoveries.

The title of the book is The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. It seems that Gilkey loved books as objects, not for their content. In fact, the books he "collected" weren't books he knew and loved (he treasured his first-edition of Lolita, for example, but thought the story was "disgusting"), but books that were well known. Do you think that's generally true in the world of rare books, thieving aside?

Having interviewed many collectors while working on this book, I came to see that their love of books is rarely a simple one. Not many Romeo and Juliet stories of pure, innocent romance among them. That their love of the content of books is mixed with a deep appreciation of the book as an aesthetic object does not mean they don't revere literature or science or whatever other subject they collect; it's just a complicated affair.

You're not just an observer, you become part of the story itself, like when you visited the Brick Row Book Shop with Gilkey—a store he had stolen from in the past. When you began this project, did you anticipate that you would become a participant, not just an observer? What was that experience like?

Not only did I not plan to become a participant, I did not expect to be in the story at all. When I set out to write this book, I envisioned it is as part narrative (about the book thief and the “bibliodick” who tracked him down) and part history (of collecting and crime). While my experience with Gilkey at Brick Row was fascinating, it was not until he started confessing thefts to me, and later suggesting future thefts, that I realized I had been pulled over some line. That line was not one of journalistic objectivity as much as it was one of influence. I was keenly aware that my following Gilkey affected his actions, and this is a subject I'd love to hear more journalists discuss: how once you pull out a pen and paper, or tape recorder, or camera, you affect the actions and words of the person being recorded.

Do you still have the Kreuterbuch? If so, what do you plan on doing with it?

I gave it back to my friend, who is donating it to a library.

It's somewhat frustrating that the book ends without a resolution—Gilkey is still out there stealing books without remorse. I know Gilkey thought a lot about how you should end the book. Have you had any contact with him since the book was finished? Do you know if he has read it?

You're right, there's no tidy Hollywood ending to this story, but that was appealing to me in the same way that many of Chekhov's stories' ends are subtle and satisfyingly true. I have had some contact with Gilkey, via email, since the book came out. To my knowledge, he has not yet read it, but he wrote that he is very pleased with how well it's doing.

You have a short section on ebooks, and The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is available as an ebook too. What do you think ebooks will do to the world of rare book collecting?

When I began my research for the book, I didn't know anyone with an ebook, but by the end, I knew many, several of whom were authors. But all of them continue to buy books, as well, because reading books is different from reading a screen, however technologically sophisticated and paper-like that screen may be. Of course, I can't predict the future, but my guess is that rare book collecting will actually become more prevalent as people ponder the meaning of the possible (not probable, I hope) death of the physical book.

How long did you spend working on The Man Who Loved Books Too Much?

I did much of the research over one year, much of the writing over the next, and then did more of both throughout the third year.

Have you been to any book fairs or rare bookshops since you finished writing, or are you leaving the world behind?

In November I'm going to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, and I'm really looking forward to talking to the dealers I've met over the past few years—and seeing what treasures they've brought.

What's in your library?

My library consists of favorite books from childhood and college, some old books I've inherited from grandparents, a couple dozen old flea market finds, along with most of the books I've read as an adult. Let's just say space is getting scarce. In fact, I have begun shopping for more bookshelves, because I can't bear to give up any books, and I buy more than I can keep up with. While I read both fiction and non-fiction, mostly of what I read is narrative non-fiction.

What are you reading now?

I'm reading a wonderful new book by Helen Thorpe entitled Just Like Us. It's a brilliant non-fiction narrative about four Mexican girls coming of age in America, grappling with the struggles caused by our policies regarding illegal immigrants.

Questions from LibraryThing members:

From JBD1: I'd like to know how she felt knowing that she was allowing crimes to be committed—including credit card fraud, transportation of goods across state lines, and (most seriously to those of us who are librarians), stealing and mutilating library books–and not reporting them. Was "keeping her source" more important than preventing him from committing more crimes?

First, let me clarify that I never watched Gilkey commit a crime, nor was I in any position to prevent him from doing so. More broadly, I feel my book serves an important purpose in raising awareness of the importance of victims to broadcast news of book theft rather than keep quiet about it.

From rickseven: Did she have any empathy towards the book thief, or did she just see him as a common criminal?

The book thief, John Gilkey, had a deep, complicated love of books, and he couldn't or wouldn't stop stealing them. While I felt wholeheartedly that what he did was wrong, and recognized that many booksellers suffered because of it, I also understood that Gilkey had a problem that seemed to be out of his control. People often want to categorize others as good or bad, but no one is ever that black or white.

—interview by Abby Blachly

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About author interviews

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