Book Thieves, Rare Books and Obsession

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.


17 thoughts on “Book Thieves, Rare Books and Obsession

  1. Lady Fancifull says:

    Oh I want that book. An old herbal? Heaven. Squeezing it to open it? Even more entrancing. Ninety tons of books? Will stop worrying about lack of space etc. Clearly my 1000 plus by comparison makes me an ascetic minimalist. Am feeling almost like a book free environment now, why I have lots of walls without books covering them!

  2. FictionFan says:

    Well, I think you’ve just got a bit of revenge, Jilanne! This sounds fascinating and sadly so does ‘The Professor and the Madman’. If only poor Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick had got himself a Kindle though…

    Just to annoy you, I will recommend another fascinating (and very short) book on a similar subject – The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen. I’ve never got around to putting my review of it on the blog but here’s a link to my Amazon review… (Ah, the good old days, when I used to keep my reviews to under 300 words!)

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. Kind of reminds me of one I read called “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks. It followed a rare, one-of-a-kind Jewish text through the centuries as it went from culture to culture and survived wars and book burnings. Very good book.

  4. Lady Fancifull says:

    No sure ‘thank you’ is altogether appropriate, to you and to my partner in crime. the actress and the pope theft book, duly bought from a market place seller.

    Ah well, at least i keep my local post person in work, delivering books, day after day

  5. Lady Fancifull says:

    Oh NOOOOOOOOOOOOO I have just spotted Carrie’s recommendation. Why am i a woman of so little will. Why couldn’t I like collecting beads, or stamps or something, which you can look at and appreciate without further work, and erosion of time. Do I SERIOUSLY think I’m going to be able to read all these before I shuffle off this mortal?? I seem permanently to have enough books unread to provide about 18 months worth of reading. But alas, rather than diminishing, bloggers are serpents in the library garden of eden, and books the delicious apple………

  6. Letizia says:

    Your review had me laughing as I read, it was deliciously engaging! I’ve never been drawn to rare books except for antique family books which I love to hold and read and imagine my forefathers/mothers reading.
    And yet my heart did start beating a bit faster when you described the house that exceeded weight limits due to all its books. Clearly some compulsion is lurking in my subconscious… I’m sure it’s in you too!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Oh, but the description of the book that led her into the story is so exquisite, I can’t imagine anyone being able to resist. I wanted to run my hands over its handpainted pages, sniff that woody scent she describes, have my husband translate its pages, and then listening for its sigh as I gently pat it closed.

      I suppose I just exposed myself, didn’t I?

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