4 reviews

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Published: 2010-10-05
Paperback : 288 pages
6 members reading this now
4 clubs reading this now
4 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 4 members
In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, a compelling narrative set within the strange and genteel world of rare-book collecting: the true story of an infamous book thief, his victims, and the man determined to catch him.

Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. ...
No other editions available.
Add to Club Selections
Add to Possible Club Selections
Add to My Personal Queue
Jump to


In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, a compelling narrative set within the strange and genteel world of rare-book collecting: the true story of an infamous book thief, his victims, and the man determined to catch him.

Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey steals purely for the love of books. In an attempt to understand him better, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged herself into the world of book lust and discovered just how dangerous it can be.

John Gilkey is an obsessed, unrepentant book thief who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare books from book fairs, stores, and libraries around the country. Ken Sanders is the self-appointed "bibliodick" (book dealer with a penchant for detective work) driven to catch him. Bartlett befriended both outlandish characters and found herself caught in the middle of efforts to recover hidden treasure. With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, she has woven this entertaining cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his dirtiest crimes, where he stashed the loot, and how Sanders ultimately caught him but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them. Immersing the reader in a rich, wide world of literary obsession, Bartlett looks at the history of book passion, collection, and theft through the ages, to examine the craving that makes some people willing to stop at nothing to possess the books they love.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


From Chapter 9, "Brick Row"
A couple of months after Gilkey's 2005 release from prison, I met him in front of 49 Geary Street, a building that houses several art galleries and rare book stores, in San Francisco. It was a September morning and he wore a bright white sweatshirt, pleated khakis, his beige leather sneakers, and the PGA baseball cap. He held a folder, on top of which lay a handwritten, numbered list, his to-do list for the day. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. What are the subtleties of stealing for profit versus stealing out of a love for books themselves? Is one more justified than the other?

2. What motivates Bartlett's quest to uncover the stories behind the mysterious misdeeds and high profile book thefts? How does this motivation change over the course of the book? Did you find yourself at times sympathizing with or feeling pity for Gilkey? Why or why not?

3. Why do people collect books? What makes certain titles more valuable? The author notes that our books are often "repositories for memories" (p. 20), so given that criteria, what might be your most "valuable" books, and why?

4. In an age of digital book formats do you think there is any steam left in modern book collecting? What effect might this shift to ebooks have? What might be in store for collectors in the future? What do you think our relationship to the "book" will be? Has a shift already begun?

5. Has learning some of the tricks of the book collecting trade—smelling books for signs of mildew encroachment, the flawed nature of "certificates of authenticity," the joy of finding fore-edged paintings—altered or newly inspired your relationship to books? What insights from this story have had the most impact on you and your collection?

6. Why do some collectors (like Gilkey) risk it all-fortune, freedom, and reputation-to steal to add to their collections? What might prevent others, though equally obsessive, from acting in the same way?

7. From the lens of our culture, what does a library full of old and collectable books say about us (our identities)? Why might we be willing to buy into this projection? Why might we still cling to the idea of personal libraries equating to genteel status or wealth?

8. Why is Gilkey so eager to share his story, including his motivations and theft strategy, with Bartlett? Though it would only increase his profile and make it harder for him to remain anonymous as a thief, what does he stand to gain by telling all?

9. Within the story we get a glimpse into the relationships between Sanders and his father, and Gilkey and his father. Compare and contrast their early lives and the involvement of their fathers in Sanders's and Gilkey's collecting activities. What behaviors were cultivated and encouraged by each? Though both started young with their passions, what factors contributed to their divergent paths?

10. The author notes that the monetary value in literary classics has outpaced stock and bond markets for the past 20 years but notes Sanders's opinion that "it wasn't necessarily a good thing. Books should always be acquired for the sheer love and joy of it" (p. 117). Do you agree? What would be the dangers of rare books being treated like fine art commodities?

11. Why does Gilkey look at his fellow book collectors as his enemies rather than fellow connoisseurs or friends? Contrast his antagonistic, predatory relationship with them to the cordial, extended family-like treatment other collectors extend to each other at book fairs and other gatherings.

12. The Northern California bookselling community is a highly unique and close-knit group. Do you think another merchant group could be capable or willing to go to the lengths that they do to catch a serial thief? Why might they have felt so compelled to act outside of the monetary loss? What is lost if they fail?

13. What ultimately drives Ken Sanders to take on the crusade to nail Gilkey? How would you answer the author who seeks to understand why Gilkey is "so passionate about books...he would put his freedom on the line for them" and why Sanders is "so determined to catch him...[he'd put] the financial stability of his store on the line for it"?

14. Do you think Bartlett had an ethical obligation to share the details Gilkey revealed to her with the authorities or other booksellers? Do you agree with her rationalization as she shifted "from an observer to participant in Gilkey's story" (p. 241)?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from the Author:

Dear Reader,

The moment I discovered the story of book thief John Gilkey, I was hooked. It wasn't only his crimes that captivated me, but the reason he had committed them: unlike most thieves, who steal for profit, Gilkey steals for love—the love of books. I had to know more, and once I began asking questions, I realized I had stepped into a real-life mystery.

As a book lover, there's nothing I want more than to be so engrossed in a story that I don't realize time is passing. This was often my state of mind while working on The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. As my research showed me, Gilkey's story, extraordinary as it is, is just one of many dramatic tales of book crime through the centuries. Behind all of them was an ardent passion for books—and that's something most of us can understand.

Happy reading!

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "I read it because it was the book of the month in Book Movement"by mpaniaguatej (see profile) 11/29/10

but it was not what I expected. It deceived me...sorry.

  "The Book Thief"by punkydoodle (see profile) 11/04/10

The concept was intriguing but the writing was uneven and rather boring at times. A smoother narrative flow would have helped a lot. I was disappointed overall and only finished it because it was our... (read more)

  "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much"by Neyly (see profile) 11/01/10

Book clubs can find a wealth of topics to discuss: obsession, bibliomania, family ties, ...

The book is nonfiction and it seemed to me to profile the author's journey through the maze of

... (read more)

  "The Man Who loved Books Too Much"by emptynester2 (see profile) 10/27/10

reads like a textbook. Blah.

Rate this book
Remember me

Join the leading website for book clubs with over 35,000 clubs and 20,000 reading guides.



Get free weekly updates on top club picks, book giveaways, author events and more
Please wait...