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Clash of obsessions in 'Man Who Loved Books Too Much'

A fanatical thief of rare books is pursued by a passionate security chief

It all started with a beautiful, centuries-old, orphaned book that found its way onto allison Hoover Bartlett's desk. the 375-year-old book was a mystery, found by a friend among his late

brother's possessions with a note explaining that a woman had borrowed it from a library where she worked and accidentally taken it with her when she moved. Bartlett borrows the German Kreuterbuch, or plant book, to research its origins and, if possible, return it to its owner.

Her research into the fascinating world of rare books uncovers the information that booksellers are being victimized by a shameless book thief, a nondescript man named John Gilkey. Because the thefts are widespread, Gilkey's tactics are varied, and many of the losses amount to only a few hundred or thousand dollars, police are not interested. But Ken Sanders, a sharp-witted rare-book expert who becomes security chief for a booksellers' group at the same time Gilkey is looting its members is determined to track him down.

Her book, "the Man who Loved Books too Much: the true Story of a thief, a Detective, and the world of Literary obsession," (Riverhead, 274 pages, $15 paperback) is the June selection of the Buffalo News Book Club.

Sanders and Gilkey are fascinating in their differences–and similarities. Both adore books and appreciate their value. But Gilkey is a slippery, morally deficient man who fantasizes that having a valuable and important library will show people his worth, while Sanders is an honest man who focuses his considerable intelligence on trapping his prey. Each is obsessed–Gilkey with stealing

valuable books and Sanders (a rare book expert from Salt Lake City who can occasionally be seen on "Antiques Roadshow") with catching him and recovering the priceless volumes he has looted.

Sanders and Gilkey "made perfect foes," Bartlett says in a phone interview from her San Francisco home. "Gilkey first struck me as this polite, amiable lover of books, but there he was in prison when I first met him; he was a convict with no remorse for his crimes. The juxtaposition of the bookish and the criminal, I found so interesting."

Sanders, she says, "shares the obsession. He is as determined to catch Gilkey as Gilkey was to get the books, but he is as straight-shooting as Gilkey was deceptive. He has very strong convictions about what is right and what is wrong, and in his eyes one of the worst things a person can do is steal a book. So they shared some qualities, but they were on opposite sides. I knew once I had spoken to each of them that this was a story that I was going to write. They were both individually so interesting and the chase that was happening between them was so irresistible."

Gilkey is particularly interesting because he expresses a deep love for the valuable books he steals, an emotion that many avid readers, including Bartlett, share without crossing over into obsession and thievery.

"In that way he's not all that different from other book collectors," she says. "There are book collectors who read a lot more than Gilkey does, who are more in love with the content, although there were some books that he really did love. But he did also share that quality with other collectors, that building a book collection is a way of building an identity, and if you have an impressive collection, it makes you an impressive man.

"That is a fairly common trait among collectors, although most of them are not corrupt, thank goodness. They have a sense that books have meaning beyond what is on their pages."

Gilkey considers it his right to steal thousands of dollars worth of books he wants but cannot afford. Although he is arrested repeatedly and only employed sporadically–and uses one job to harvest credit card numbers he can use to buy books fraudulently –he imagines a future of moneyed elegance. "This dream that stays very much alive in him is that one day he will have that mahogany bookcase, he will have that big house and he can line up all of his books and then people will really understand who he is," says Bartlett.

People who read her book sometimes wonder "whether Gilkey actually loved the books, or whether he was all about the status," she says. "The way I describe it is that it was not like a Romeo and Juliet innocent kind of love. There are lots of kinds of human love, and lots of kinds of love for books. His was a more avaricious love.

"We all know or have read stories about people who love and marry other people because of the status that they gain by being with the other person, being with the wealthy, powerful husband or wife, or the beautiful young thing. They may still love them, but it's not a pure, innocent kind of love. So I think Gilkey does have a love for these books, it's just not all that innocent."

As Bartlett's research takes her to a jail where she visits Gilkey, as well as to book fairs and bookstores, and finally, to Gilkey's mother's home, she realizes that things have changed.

"My presence had begun to affect [Gilkey's] choices and it made me part of the story. I could not believe it was happening," Bartlett admits. "It was not my intention in the beginning to be involved. When I first started writing this story, I thought it was going to be about Gilkey and about Sanders and the cat-and-mouse chase between them, and a little about the history of book thievery and book collecting. But once I was drawn into the story, unwittingly, as in when he called me and started confessing crimes, I realized that not to include myself would be inauthentic."

She eventually realizes that she shares a trait with Gilkey and Sanders. "We were all tenacious hunters– Gilkey for books, Sanders for thieves, and me for both their stories."

"The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" was a best-seller when it was published in 2009 and remains popular. When the book was published, Sanders "was very supportive," she says.

Gilkey, perhaps less predictably, was also pleased with the book, she says: "For somebody who is that obsessed with books to be the subject of a book was, I think, probably thrilling." In a couple of conversations after the book was published, she says, "he talked about the book in terms of its success. He was very pleased that it seemed to be getting so much attention and people were reading it and reviewing it."

Now, Bartlett says, "I haven't spoken with him in a very long time, and I think he understood that this project is over and we're both moving on. I hoped he would move on toward a more legal, law-abiding way of collecting books, but I doubt that's happening. I've heard reports even maybe a month ago that he was back in one of the rare bookstores in San Francisco trying to sell a couple of stolen books. The story continues, and I think that's just true of certain kinds of obsessions–they are impossible to kill. He's been arrested a couple of times since the book came out, but I don't know the details of all his crimes."

Bartlett is researching her next work, which is based on a recently discovered family story. "It's about an ancestor from the 17th century who led a very dramatic life, which I did not hear about until a few years ago," says Bartlett.

And what happened to the Kreuterbuch, the German volume whose origin launched Bartlett's research into the world of rare books? The library from which the brother's friend said she had borrowed it had no record of ever owning it, which Bartlett discovered was not that unusual–when a book vanishes, some institutions destroy any record that they ever held it. Her friend "ended up donating it to a botanical library; we never did find out the true owner," she says

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Bartlett will join Buffalo News readers in a live chat about her book, about book collecting and other related topics at noon Monday on The News'website, www.buffalonews.com.

Riverhead Books has sent a few paperback copies of "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" to The Buffalo News to be given away to Book Club readers this month. To be considered for one of the books, send us a note explaining why you would like a copy of the book. Send a note to The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY, 14240 or email to bookclub@buffnews.com.

aneville@buffnews.com