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October 11, 2009

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Premise doesn't sustain book

BETWEEN 1999 and 2003, John Gilkey used dozens of credit card numbers acquired from his department store job to steal more than US$100,000 worth of rare books before being caught and sent to jail, partly through the effort of one bookseller named Ken Sanders.

When Gilkey and Sanders's story found its way to the journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett, she came to see it as "not only about a collection of crimes but also about people's intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books."

Bartlett uses these two men as a starting point for a series of vignettes in which the love of books turns to madness.

Her examples range from the merely eccentric to the sociopathic, from the professor in Nebraska who was forced to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books to the 19th-century Spanish monk who strangled one man and stabbed nine others in order to raid their libraries.

Bartlett's sketches of bibliomania are breezily drawn and often fascinating. If they ultimately fail to cohere into something more, the fault rests at the book's center, with Gilkey himself.

It's not that his actions aren't interesting, but that they don't mean any of the things Bartlett wants them to mean. When we learn that as a boy, Gilkey once emerged from Montgomery Ward with a pilfered catcher's mitt that didn't even fit his hand, the riddle is already solved.

Bartlett's attempts at New Journalistic self-implication aren't always convincing, but they provide some riveting moments, as when Bartlett and Gilkey tour a bookstore he once victimized while the owner looks on in helpless rage. In this scene, we glimpse Gilkey's true strangeness, which is only incidentally related to books.

Given the problem at the heart of the book, it is a testament to Bartlett's skill that it reads as well as it does.


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