Novel Thoughts: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Nonfiction is a different kind of literary beast in terms of both reading and writing. The story is still there, waiting to be released, but the author’s job transforms from that of storyteller to that of fact checker. It is often (although not always) a much more sterile writing task, one that Allison Hoover Bartlett has attempted to tackle in her book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much .

Bartlett’s book relates the history of a man, John Gilkey, who is so consumed with his desire to possess rare books that he resorts to stealing them from those to whom they (rightfully?) belong. Bartlett also writes of Gilkey’s nemesis, Ken Sanders, who makes it his mission to thwart Gilkey and visit upon him the proper consequences. By the end of the book, readers are able to see that while the men operate on opposite sides of the good/evil dichotomy, they are both equally voracious in their attempts to obtain their goals.

As nonfiction books are inclined to be, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is slow to start, and the reader is often left wondering what the thesis of the work is to be. We are constantly left with open-ended questions that are evaded in subsequent chapters. By the end of the book, we still can’t be sure that we understand Gilkey and his motives anymore than we did in the beginning, as Bartlett doesn’t actually draw the connections between Gilkey, Sanders, and even herself until chapter eleven. Then the connection is tenuously explained.

Creative description of the setting seems contrived in this text, which is a common problem in creative nonfiction. Writers are only allowed so much poetic license before they are admonished for not adhering to facts. Bartlett’s case is no different. While her attempts to creatively render a factual setting are commendable, they still fall short of the descriptive vigor to which readers of fiction are accustomed. For example, Bartlett writes, “On the late spring day I drove there, the sky was a dull blue, the wind fierce, and the hills well on their way to a dry shade of brown. Off the highway, the frontage road was bordered by Harley-Davidsons, powerboats, and off-road vehicles in various states of disrepair.” While this description does paint what we can assume is an apt picture, it is rather generic in feeling.

As nonfiction books go, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is an interesting story, even if it doesn’t answer any profound questions about thieves, their motives, or ways to rehabilitate them. Bartlett has done a good job of integrating anecdotal with factual material which helps keep the reader entertained. She makes both Sanders and Gilkey seem relatable to her readers in a way that aligns us with her confusion as to why the men behave the way they do, and ultimately readers will be left with questions regarding not just the rare book trade but themselves as well.


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