Wednesday, February 8, 2012

'Collecting' -- Or Something Else

I just closed the covers on one of the most maddening books I've ever read: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett. It's the profile of John Charles Gilkey, a guy who  'purchased' more than $100,000 of rare books, using stolen credit cards.
    Gilkey was eventually caught, but only served a few years before he was back out on the streets, doing his thing. While writing the book, Bartlett met with him on many occasions, several times accompanying him on hunting expeditions to see how he did it. But "stealing??"  He wasn't doing that -- he was 'collecting.' (Not to mention getting revenge on booksellers he disliked -- because they'd caught him -- or just The System.)
    The book isn't just Gilkey's story, but an overview of valuable books stolen, many which have never been recovered. (Or if the thief was caught, charges were never pressed.)  Many times, the thief's guilt is explained away (or at least assuaged) by saying, 'Well, they loved books and couldn't afford the best ones.' Or... 'They were basically honest, but tempted too much by working with valuable pieces.' (One wonders whether Barry Landau, a "presidential expert" recently convicted for swiping all sorts of historical memorabilia, used this defense.)
    Thankfully, Gilkey will be looking at a trip back to the slammer soon -- he was just caught stealing two old maps last December, from a collector who didn't hesitate to press charges. (Gilkey's photo is here as well, for the aid of sellers and bookstores. No doubt, if he's posted bail, he's out there, looking for good stuff to defray the costs of a lawyer. All part of the game.)
    Gilkey's laissez-faire attitude and cheerful superiority bothered me. (His escapades are catalogued here in shorter form, by Ken Sanders, the man who helped catch him.) The resigned attitude of the booksellers, libraries and institutions who had things stolen -- yet refused to publicize their losses, or even worse, let the thief get away with it. Their attitudes drove me absolutely nuts.
     The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey catalogs this educated indifference, but from the world of maps -- and another thief, Gilbert Bland, who got away with it. ( I mentioned this terrific book in a previous post.)
    But what bothered me most was the attitude of the author, Allison Hoover Bartlett. What, someone gives you a very old book that you know was stolen from a library, to hold onto for a while? Does she feel guilty, ambivalent about it? Sure...but it only seems to add to the fascination. In fact, this ancient copy of the Krautterbuch is still on Bartlett's desk, three years later.
    Her attitude about Gilkey is equally nauseating. He shows her a first edition of a library book he's obviously planning to steal -- she dithers about it, but doesn't do a thing. He gives her useful hints about other books he's stolen (or is planning to), other places they're stored -- she mentions them in the book, feels guilty, dithers some more, consults a lawyer...and does nothing about it. Sure, that information is in print now. But now is too late.
     I wonder...if Gilkey had filched from her beloved shelf of books, would her attitude have been any different?
     By the time I finished the last page of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, I didn't know whether to cheer, weep...or go take a bath to wash off the slime.

I love books, too. In fact, I love old things in general -- and the more rare and unusual they are, the more I'm intrigued. But taking things without paying for them? Helping yourself to items that are not yours?
     that's S-T-E-A-L-I-N-G.
And if you know, and don't do a thing about it, you're helping. (It's called being an accessory, Allison.)
     No ifs, ands or buts.

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