A few weeks ago, I posted one of the inscriptions to the book, 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. Today I post a review along with its chilling postscript:
“This book belongs to none but me For there’s my name inside to see. To steal this book, if you should try, It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high. And ravens then will gather ’bout To find your eyes and pull them out. And when you’re screaming ‘Oh, Oh, Oh!’ Remember, you deserved this woe. (Warning written by medieval German scribe)
I’m thinking that German scribe took himself and books seriously, don’t you?
Although Bartlett’s book is not as suspense-driven as Erik Larson’s work (think Devil in the White City), I was fascinated by the obsessions of those who collect rare books. And perhaps I identified too strongly with the subject matter.
Bartlett has researched the topic well, so in the midst of the central tale about John Gilkey, a rare book thief who justifies his actions in a self-serving Robin Hood kind of way, readers learn fascinating facts about rare books, book thieves, and—um, in my case—book hoarders.
About one fairly unknown hoarder, Bartlett writes:
“This rare book world had become almost all I thought about. My desk and bedside table were now crowded with books about people like Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick, a botany professor who bought so many books in the 1930s that his Nebraska house exceeded the building code maximum load. When he died in 1952, at age eighty-three, it was on an army cot he used as a bed in his kitchen, surrounded by ninety tons of books.”
All right, fellow bibliophiles, I won’t be surprised if some of you thrill at the thought of living like Fitzpatrick. You know who you are!
Bartlett takes us on a wander through rare book shops, antique book fairs, and Gilkey’s boyhood home where we get to meet his sister and mother and delve a bit more into the psyche of the obsessed.
And in the process, Bartlett explains how a 400-yr-old stolen book called the Kräutterbuch (written in German and Latin, it is filled with information about plants and traditional medicine) started her on the road to writing about Gilkey. A friend found the Kräutterbuch in his brother’s possessions (after he committed suicide) and loaned the book to Bartlett.
“I would open the book and leaf through it….throughout the book, are irregular brown blotches, which I learned are called foxing, a book’s age spots, usually caused by dampness or lack of ventilation. Some of the darkness on these pages, however, appears to be from spills of some sort. Mead? Candle wax? Tears? Every page is a mystery, a story to be puzzled out.”
Fascinated by the drawings but unable to read the book, she takes it to a dealer.
“To open the Kräutterbuch, you have to squeeze it with two hands, thereby releasing the etched brass clasps shaped like Egyptian columns, flared at the top like regal palm trees. The pages, when turned, make a muffled crack, not unlike the sound of a flag on a windy afternoon, and turning them releases a dry, woody smell, a combination of must and sweetness that I associate with my grandparents’ old books….When I asked Windle [a book dealer] about the book’s value, he said that…it was worth $3,000 to $5,000. I was pleasantly surprised, although since the book was not mine, I had no rational reason for feeling such satisfaction.”
Bartlett is further smitten when her German-speaking friend translates a section:
“Often we are missing the right kind of happiness, and if we don’t have any wine yet, we will be very content when we do get wine.”
Bartlett keeps the book and over a period of months starts to research its history. During that time, she uncovers the story about Gilkey and his pursuer (book dealer and self-appointed detective–Ken Saunders) and decides that the story must be told.
All the while pondering:
“Whenever I would close the Kräutterbuch and push its covers tight, there was an exhalation, a settling, before I affixed the clasps. Of course I would return it, I reassured myself. But in the meantime, I kept a book that did not belong to me [stolen from who knows where], and tried not to think about what that made me.”
Bartlett’s book is one part psychological study of herself and her subjects, one part exposé on the rare book industry, and one part book of crazy trivia about rare books and people’s obsessions.
It’s a fast read and more than a bit disconcerting to find out that the infamous book thief continues on his merry way, despite the efforts of Ken Saunders and the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America.
I found Bartlett’s book to be as intriguing as The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. And although I’ll never be a true collector of rare editions, I do love the vicarious thrill, similar, as Bartlett’s points out, to the discovery of lost treasure.
So go ahead and get lost in the world of fine libraries and leather-bound tomes with a few unscrupulous people who LOVE rare books and the things those books represent: class and intelligence and no small amount of reverence.