The Rumpus Interview with Allison Hoover Bartlett

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Have you ever loved a book enough to steal it? I have. A man named John Gilkey has.  He’s stolen many. He has bibliokleptomania. He’s a man who can’t stop himself from stealing books. Allison Hoover Bartlett spent three years interviewing John Gilkey, off and on, about books, his passion for them, and the difference between right and wrong.

The result is her book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. Of all the books that he stole, the only book that Gilkey actually read was Lolita (which, he proclaimed, was disgusting). But he does share one trait with Humbert Humbert: The slippery use of language. Gilkey referred to his method of acquiring books as “getting” (he used stolen credit card numbers) and “going away” was his code for going to jail.

Another book lover figures prominently in the story, and that is Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Books in Salt Lake City. He is the rare book dealer turned detective who was determined to bring Gilkey to justice. Bartlett first wrote about John Gilkey in this article published in San Francisco Magazine, which ended up in the anthology Best American Crime Reporting 2007. This interview was conducted by email.

The Rumpus: As of now [March 2010], when was the last time you heard from Gilkey? In your Booksmith appearance last fall you said that Gilkey had emailed you congratulating you on the publication of the book, but had not read it and at that time didn’t have an address for you send to a copy to. Do you know if he’s read it now and if so, what was his take on it? If not, any idea how you’ll inscribe it to him when you can send him one?

Allison Hoover Bartlett: I did send Gilkey a copy of the book, with an inscription thanking him for sharing his story with me, but I have no idea whether or not he’s read it. At the time, I warned him by email that he might not agree with my perceptions of him and what he had done, but his response was very professional. He wrote that he would respect my work even if he didn’t agree with my views. The last time I heard from him was a few months ago. He emailed me about a book idea of his (a novel, based on a dream he had), but still there was no mention of whether or not he has read the book.

Rumpus: This book grew out of a magazine article, and you’ve said that Gilkey enjoyed reading it. How did your research evolve into a book? When did you know you had enough material? What impact did the publication of the article have on your relationship with Gilkey? Did it make him more forthcoming with information?

Bartlett: The first time I looked up rare book theft online, I found an astonishing number of stories. In one of them, an Interpol agent was quoted saying that this type of theft is now more widespread than fine art theft. I was immediately hooked and, given the prevalence of the crime, its centuries-long history, and the fact that some of the thieves, like Gilkey, were motivated by a love of books not money, I was certain there was more to dig into. So I knew this story was rich and complex enough for a book even before I began writing the magazine article.

Days after the article was published, Gilkey was released from prison and called to tell me he enjoyed reading it, so I suppose it did make him willing to continue talking to me. I’m never out to “get” people in interviews, to trap them in corners, or lead them to contradict themselves; I’m guessing he sensed that from the start.

Rumpus: How much of your own life did you reveal to Gilkey? Any conversation is a give and take and I wonder how much he came to know about you. At one point you mention that he addresses you as Mrs. Bartlett, and that you in fact felt comfortable with a certain distance in your relationship, but I wonder how well he eventually got to know you. Was it ever a concern of yours that he’d try and infiltrate your life? Or did he not ever show any curiosity about you (being that he’s such a narcissist)?

Bartlett: The relationship between a writer and her subject can be difficult to navigate, for both parties. An interview can seem like a friendly conversation, particularly so to the interviewee (who is not taking notes, and usually not hoping for more than understanding), but it is a professional relationship, a business partnership of sorts, in which the product is information and the currency is interest, validation, and a promise to publish that information. I wanted Gilkey to understand that however easy our conversations became, and however many times we met, ours was and would remain a professional relationship. I reminded him a few times that while I was taking down his story, I was also recording the stories of his victims, the police, and others, and that ultimately I would be writing my version of what happened. It was important to me that he not believe otherwise.

Occasionally, details of my life — my family, the town I grew up in, et cetera — surfaced when they were relevant to our conversation, but that happened rarely. I don’t remember Gilkey asking anything personal about me, but he did ask about writing and publishing. Given his interest in books and authors, his doing so wasn’t surprising.

I did have some concern that he might show up at a reading after the book was published, which would be awkward, especially given how most booksellers feel about what he’s done, but so far, he’s shown better judgment than that.

Rumpus: Did you ever talk books in general? Any conversations like, “I remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I had such a hard time with Faulkner at first”?

Bartlett: At the time, I was reading mostly non-fiction, and he was reading 19th century fiction, detective novels, etc., so there wasn’t a lot of overlap. Often, he would ask if I’d read a book he was reading, or if I’d heard of its author, and he wanted to know my opinions, which I would share, but only briefly. I was always eager to return to the subject of that day’s interview because I never knew if he’d be arrested again soon, which would make future meetings difficult, if not impossible, to arrange.

Rumpus: Gilkey seems lonely to me: he doesn’t seem to have any friends. Did he ever express or reveal feelings of loneliness or isolation?

Bartlett: No, he never mentioned being lonely. It was my impression that he had always spent a lot of time alone, even as a young child, so perhaps he was used to it, or did not see it as an unusual way to live.

Rumpus: What were your greetings and partings like? I don’t expect you to tell me you hugged, but did you shake hands, say, “See you soon? Keep in touch”? Were your greetings and partings awkward or at all stilted?

Bartlett: Our meetings were always friendly, so, yes, we shook hands, and yes, I asked him to keep in touch, which he did. There were months when we met every week, and there were stretches of time when I was writing, so we didn’t meet. During these times, he would occasionally call or email me to see how the book was coming along. Whenever leaving an interview, as I mentioned, I did fear that he might be imprisoned again, in which case it could be a long time before we would meet again. Fortunately for me, even when he went back to prison, it was never for more than a few months. Even so, the next meeting would have a sense of urgency. I needed to catch up, and my fear of his disappearing was stronger.

Rumpus: Toward the end of the book he is giving you writing advice, maybe not on prose per se, but on the overall arc of your book and his story. So in a sense he was trying to step into a role in your life that your writer peers fill. Was he just trying to make his own life seem more action-packed and less, I don’t know, dismal?

Bartlett: I got the sense he respected me and my work, so he was not giving writing advice the way another writer would. His suggestions were aimed at making the narrative I was writing more interesting. This was his life, after all, and my impression was that he wanted it to be as good a read as possible.

Rumpus: I’m not sure I understand the wet yarn method described in the first chapter. Can you elaborate on that?

Bartlett: A Swiss dealer explained this method used to remove valuable pages, such as maps, botanical illustrations, et cetera, from books. Since you’re not allowed into libraries’ rare book rooms with scissors or razor blades (or even pens, for that matter), thieves have been known to smuggle strands of wool yarn tucked into their mouths. Fortunately, it’s not common, but here’s how they do it: The thief opens a book to a page he wants, lays the wet yarn along the spine’s edge of the page, closes the book and leaves. As the yarn dries, it shrinks, cutting into that edge of the page. Several days later, the thief returns and slips the page out of the book and into his coat. Ingenious, but despicable, especially when the mutilated books are one of a kind and very old. There’s no way to make them whole again.

Rumpus: You’ve said you suspect book thieves are coming to your events. Do you think they’re scoping you out? Or wondering if you’ll turn your attention to them next?

Bartlett: At one of my first readings I noticed a tall, thin man sitting in the corner, grasping a bag in his arms. He scowled at me through the entire reading. After everyone left, I mentioned him to one of the booksellers. “Oh yeah,” she said. “He had book thief written all over him.” Then she called over to the other owner, who [was standing] behind the counter, “Hey, out of everyone here tonight, who do you suppose was the book thief?” He answered without hesitation: “The tall thin guy in the corner.” After decades working in bookstores, they could spot a thief. I hadn’t even considered that thieves might be attracted to my readings, but I’ve seen other suspicious looking men (book thieves are almost always men), so I do wonder about them. If they are thieves, I suppose they’re there to hear what I have to say about what they do. They are a curious lot. Once, after interviewing a bookseller at Green Apple Books, during which I asked him about book thefts, I left the store, and a man who’d been eavesdropping ran up to me and confessed that he was a book thief. He told me this right before asking, “So, are you a cop or something?” I was tempted to suggest he ask that before he confessed, but I was a little stunned, plus I wanted him to tell me more.

Rumpus: What was the event like at Ken Sanders’ store last fall? He figures prominently in the book and though he is not the protagonist, he is the hero; he’s the antagonist who’s the hero. I know you had your differences during the course of your writing and research, but was he pleased with the end result? I imagine The Man Who Loved Books Too Much being prominently displayed in his store as a show of pride, or maybe as a warning to would-be thieves.

Bartlett: I think Sanders is pleased with aspects of the book. He would have preferred my being more overtly judgmental about Gilkey, but that was not my intention. Still, he has sent me hundreds of copies of the book to sign and return to his shop in Salt Lake City. A few weeks ago he emailed me to say he was going to mail another box of books for me to sign, so I gather he’s still selling a lot of them.

When I was at Sanders’ shop, I read from a chapter in which he plays a role. It’s awkward to quote someone who’s standing a few feet away from you, so I apologized to him in advance. But he seemed not to mind my portrayal — in fact, he had a big grin on his face as I read.

Rumpus: Gilkey more or less admits to you that he has a hard time occasionally differentiating between right and wrong. Were there any other times like that? Did you two ever discuss any sort of rehabilitation for him? A way to break his cycle of prison and release?

Bartlett: Yes, we did talk about what Gilkey considered right and wrong, his culpability, and other philosophical and legal issues that interest me very much. I would need more space than I have here to do them justice, but I do discuss them in the book. Gilkey’s getting caught, going to prison, being released, then getting caught again—this cycle repeated itself many times, and, as is the case for obsessed people, ending the cycle seems to be nearly impossible.

Rumpus: To your knowledge he never just picked up a book and walked away, and I can’t see that happening either. It’s too blatant — too low-rent — and he might have a hard time justifying it. But maybe if he had actually done that, he’d see the black and white of it more clearly.

Bartlett: He constructed elaborate justifications for his crimes, all of which amazed me. But you’re probably right, he could not use them if he were to simply grab a book in a store and walk out with it. One of the things he told me about certain thefts, where he would have someone else pick up a book he’d stolen through credit card fraud, was that since he had not physically walked out with the book, he was innocent.

Rumpus: Beyond his rampant narcissism, why do you think he spoke with you? Usually when a criminal opens up to a reporter it’s a confession, or he or she has already taken steps toward rehabilitation, yet Gilkey is resolute to the end. Maybe just “getting” books isn’t enough for him.

Bartlett: People like to tell their stories. Gilkey was no different — plus, he is a bibliomaniac whose story was going to appear in a book. That must have been mighty motivation. Also, he didn’t have friends or fellow collectors with whom to talk about books, so I believe he enjoyed our conversations.

Rumpus: One of the few books that Gilkey “got” and actually read was Lolita, which he proclaimed disgusting. Could he see beyond Humbert’s character to the lyricism of the writing?

Bartlett: We did not discuss the literary merits of Lolita. What he loved about the book was its renown and its physical qualities (he described lovingly its cover and the clamshell box it came in). This is typical of collectors — not that they don’t appreciate literature, but that the book as an aesthetic object is key. It’s often what makes them fall in love with a book.

Rumpus: Were you ever at all concerned about writing an unsympathetic or unlikable character?

Bartlett: I wasn’t concerned with writing an unsympathetic or unlikable character. What concerned me was writing a true character. Like anyone, Gilkey has good and bad qualities; I wanted to present them in balance, in a true balance that would reflect who he is. Or who he seemed to be, which is all any writer can offer.

Rumpus: You visited Gilkey’s mother’s house, his childhood home, which you describe as “every corner, wall, table, and shelf was hectic with collections” and one thing I wondered about when I read that was difference between collecting and hoarding. Do you have any insights after your visit? Is it a fine line or larger chasm? I found it cute that he had a metal detector, which his mother made sure you noticed.

Bartlett: I just happened to hear (on NPR) an interview with a couple of authors who’ve written about hoarding, in which they drew a distinction between hoarders and collectors. With hoarders, the objects they hold onto cause them shame, so they don’t want others to see the objects. Collectors feel the opposite: they’re proud of their objects, and showing them to others is one of the great pleasures of collecting. There is no question in my mind that Gilkey’s mother was a collector, not a hoarder.

Rumpus: True confession: I have a stolen book. A twice-stolen book, actually. It’s a New York Public Library book that one of my sister’s college friends checked out, had never returned, and it was left in a box of other books in my sister’s apartment one summer. I was reading my way through the box and found this book, a young adult novel, and I loved it, so I never put it back. The last date on the checkout card is March 8, 1979. I still have it and I still feel bad about it, but I’m not giving it up. It was already years overdue by the time I got my hands on it — at this point I’ve had it longer than either the library or the friend who originally stole it. But back then, somehow I convinced myself that I loved this book more than she did, and that for so many reasons, I deserved to have it. The whole time I was reading your book I could understand Gilkey, and somehow his story even made me feel better about my theft — at least I didn’t bilk credit card numbers.

Bartlett: You are not alone. When I was writing the book, dozens of people, some of them authors, told me about how they had stolen books, and usually not in the innocent way that you came by yours. Book thievery is rampant. I found that over the past 400+ years, most of the people who have stolen them are librarians and clergymen, no surprise really, when you consider that they love books, they have access to the finest, and they’re trusted guardians. I included some of their stories in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, but there were many more.

Rumpus: Can you see Gilkey with a Kindle?

Bartlett: He would probably like a Kindle, but I’m sure it would have no effect on his desire for the real thing. One of the reasons I was so drawn to his story is that I love books, not just their content, but the thingness of them, and I wanted to explore what that was about.

Rumpus: Adaptation is one of my favorite movies from a book. I love the book as well, but the movie is partly about the act of writing itself. And your book is about books—a product of writing. My question is, will Meryl Streep be playing you in the movie? Are you willing to speculate on who could pull off portraying Gilkey?

Bartlett: Meryl Streep? I wish! As for Gilkey, he told me that he thought the magazine article I wrote about him had scenes that were very cinematic, and offered a suggestion for who could play him: Nicolas Cage. So, Meryl and Nicolas, what do you say?


Sona Avakian lives in San Francisco and has never stolen another book. More from this author →