Saturday, April 3, 2010

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

I was proud of myself; I had the foresight to stock up on kosher for Passover crackers ahead of time, remembering that inevitably, the stores sell out of all the kosher for Passover snacks by the time the first Seder comes along.

Last night I looked at one of the boxes of Maneschewitz whole-wheat, kosher for Passover crackers I stashed on the overflow shelves in my garage. Needed a carb fix. I ripped open the hermetically sealed inner bag. I was Passover hungry. A terrible odor rose from the box. Okay, I said to myself, I'll be generous. I'll just wait a minute. The mustiness of the cracker vapor must have built up, so I'll give this a chance to disperse, to air out. I was desperate for my fix of carbs. I was also desperate to hold onto what felt like the last shred of my respect for the kosher manufacturers who, it seems to me, put out a pathetic array of outrageously overpriced, underflavored, cardboard-like foodstuffs every spring. So I stepped away from the box, wiped the ever-present matzah crumbs off the kitchen table and then turned back to the box, ready to nosh.

The rancid odor was still there, maybe even more pungent than when I first tore open the bag. I couldn't believe it. The contents of this particular box of crackers had to be seasons old, although of course, there was no "sell by" date on the box. At over $5 a box I was out over $15 for my 3 boxes. I was mad. More importantly, I was hungry. Were the people at Maneschewitz crackers?

The same scenario happened when I read this book. I had high hopes, was ready to dig in, only to find out that what's inside wasn't what was billed on the outside. In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much I thought I would get to read about someone like me. Not that I steal rare books, or any books for that matter. I thought this book would tell the story of someone so hungry for stories he would go so far as to steal to get them. I imagine that if you're reading this post you love books too, so you know exactly what I mean: That magical (is magical too "precious" an adjective?) moment of magnetic connection to a book; the moment you know you're a goner; the moment you know that it's time to start dinner so you reluctantly put the book down, but your mind is still in those pages; the moment you know you are sunk because you know you will end up staying up til 2am to see what happens.

I thought this book would be about just that: a man who so loved "story", that his need for more, more stories, more books, eclipsed everything else in his life. But that is not this book. Here, Bartlett chronicles the exploits of John Gilkey. In Bartlett's description there is clearly something "off" with Gilkey. Way off. Dare I say anti-social? The book is peppered with quotes that communicate his persistent sense of victimhood. He doesn't abdicate responsibility, he has a mindset that he never was responsible in the first place.

But Gilkey's motivation in stealing rare books is not the have-to-stay-up-past-midnight book lover syndrome I was hoping to read about. His impulse to steal rare books seems to have at its bedrock more of an obsessional need to impress others with his books than with anything within those books' pages. The story of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much was different from the one I expected, but it could have been compelling in its own right. Sadly, it wasn't. It dragged on and on, like reading one police report after another.

Turns out I didn't love "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" very much at all.

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