David's Reviews > The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
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Nov 01, 10

bookshelves: books-about-books, read-in-2010, disappointing
Read in November, 2010

Generally I'm a sucker for books about books, so I expected to like this more than I actually did. But, although Allison Hoover Bartlett writes well, she never quite managed to convince me that this book was anything other than a magazine article that got out of hand. John Charles Gilkey, the serial book thief at the center of the story, is not completely dull, but he's not as interesting as the author seems to believe and certainly not interesting enough to warrant a 250+ page book. I think that the time and energy Bartlett spent in researching the topic caused her to overestimate its general appeal. She's not the first non-fiction writer to fall into that particular trap, and I'm sure she won't be the last.

(A tip to all non-fiction authors: IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. If you notice that you are starting to a take a prominent role in the story, it's a dead giveaway that your story may be getting away from you. In olden days there was this priesthood of people known as editors who would step in and point this out to you, to save you from yourself. Sadly, this kind of editor (intelligent, engaged, firm) appears to have gone extinct, so let me say this explicitly here. If you're writing non-fiction, please stay out of the picture. Repeatedly insinuating yourself into the narrative will not make me like you more - instead it's likely to reduce the quality of your reporting and irritate the hell out of most readers. So, unless you're Richard Feynman, resist the temptation to make yourself a character in the narrative. We all have a boundless need to be liked; please don't pander to yours by gatecrashing your narrative). Allison Hoover Bartlett's failure to resist this temptation weakens this book significantly, though not fatally.

The failure of the book to ignite my interest stems from something that was essentially beyond the author's control. The problem is that John Charles Gilkey's kleptomania is the only faintly interesting thing about him, and it's not as fascinating as you might think. According to the jacket blurb, "Gilkey steals for love -- the love of books". This is accurate, strictly speaking, but it's also highly misleading. His obsession centers only on books as status objects and has nothing whatever to do with their intellectual content or with the joy of reading. He could just as well have focused his energy on stealing collectible paperweights. Or Pez dispensers. The realization that Gilkey steals books, not because he wants to read them, but because he thinks they will enhance his status, is ultimately what made this book fall flat for me. Despite Bartlett's borderline obsession with her subject, for me the book amounted to little more than a meandering account of the petty misdeeds of a small-time, singularly uncharismatic, drifter. When the account eventually just petered out, it came as a relief.

I'm making it sound worse than it is. Bartlett writes fluidly and the story is not completely without interest. It was just far less interesting than I'd expected
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message 1: by Brian R. (new) - added it

Brian R. Mcdonald Not sure about the Feynman reference. He wrote [with ghostwriters] three memoirs, a genre in which it would be hard not to make oneself the story, and several science books. While I certainly agree about his writing skill and humor making him an exception to many "rules", I don't see him inserting himself into any stories but his own.


message 2: by David (last edited Nov 03, 2010 01:32AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

David Brian:

You're right, of course. Feynman is not a perfect example, because most of his books are overtly autobiographical and my gripe is not directed at memoirists. In mentioning Feynman, the point I was trying to make was - if you're a non-fiction writer, please refrain from inserting yourself in the narrative unless you are as interesting and charismatic as Feynman. There is a handful of writers I can think of that meet this criterion: Jerome Groopman, Oliver Sachs, Atul Gawande for example. But most writers don't.

One example that motivated my gripe is the difference between Dan Ariely's first and second books. Even though I think Ariely is a smart and engaging writer, the constant stream of personal anecdotes in the second book was a serious weakness, and highly irritating.

Feynman was a god, and could editorialize as much as he chose, as far as I'm concerned. Though my favorite book by him was just a collection of his letters, where the slightly hammy persona that showed up in the memoirs was absent. One got a very clear picture of just how smart, decent and generous he was:
Feynman letters


message 3: by Brian R. (last edited Nov 03, 2010 09:28AM) (new) - added it

Brian R. Mcdonald I agreed completely with your point from the start; I just didn't understand how a memoirist could be a data point. Surely You're Joking is one of my favorite books of all time, one of three that I tend to push on friends who read almost regardless of their taste or areas of interest.


Anastasia Your review is spot-on!


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