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.
Riverhead Books, New York, 2009. 275 p.
I picked this book up at my new library during lunch hour last week. I started it yesterday afternoon and finished it this morning. That’s a pretty good endorsement from someone with no deadline for this review.
The author has a warm, personal style that is friendly without being saccharine. She has a story to tell and her personality shines through as she tells it to us. This book is two parts biography and one part autobiography and the threads tie together naturally.
Bartlett looks at the world of rare book collectors, dealers, and thieves. In particular, one thief and the dealer who set out to catch him. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America may not sound like a very exciting organization, but there is plenty of intrigue and cat and mouse in the narrative to keep you turning pages.
Along the way, Bartlett looks at collecting, collectors, and the sometimes fine lines that separate them from thieves. As someone who appreciates books, I found this book to generate an unexpected amount of introspection. I confess, I have thought of how easy it would be to get certain books without permission or payment. (That sounds slightly better than steal them, but it means the same thing.)
She also investigates the different reasons why people collect books. The answer isn’t as simple as “to read them,” though that is one of the reasons. Sometimes they are trying to appear as the type of person who has read certain books. Sometimes they want to be part of a clique which appreciates certain titles. In the process, Bartlett discusses how books can be more than words on a page; they can be symbols to us of memories. These memories are what make certain books nostalgic. I still have my Golden Books from childhood. I enjoyed reading them to my children and look forward to reading them to my grandchildren some day. I also remember enjoying having them read to me. My dad was fond of Tootle and Daniel Boone, my grandpa was a master at The Five Little Firemen, and my children seemed to enjoy The Pokey Little Puppy.
I can see the other nuances of desire teased out as well. A recent trip to Half Price Books saw me sorely tempted by a few titles. They had The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament—all 10 volumes—as well as the 8-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy. While I would undoubtedly use them from time to time, I wonder if I desire these more as shelf ornaments than as reference material.
Another book I almost bought but didn’t was a Second Edition National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. I own the third edition, but the second edition was my first field guide, purchased at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in the spring of 1990. It was the year that birding became an interest of mine. My copy was lost in a move a few years ago. I have no need for the book, but again, it is a symbol, a sort of personal mile marker represented by a book.
Not only was The Man Who Loved Books Too Much an interesting story, but it was thought-provoking. I have a feeling that after I have forgotten some of the details of the story, some of the issues about motivation and obsession related to books will continue to generate reflection and introspection.