Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Man who Loved Books Too Much

During the Christmas holidays, I read 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. The book centers on John Gilkey, a petty thief and con artist who steals rare books, and his nemesis, Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer who makes it his mission to catch Gilkey. The book brings the reader inside--at least to the peripheries of the inside--of the world of rare books.

For Gilkey, the appeal of rare books, which bit him hard, resided in his conviction that they lent him a patina of class and education . To own a library of rare books was to be Somebody, perhaps even an English country gentleman. Since the San Francisco-based Gilkey had no money, he used stolen credit cards, outright theft and bad checks to finance his purchases, as a result revolving in and out of prison as he pursued his collecting.

After spending much time with Gilkey, Bartlett backpedals swiftly away from him, fearful of being manipulated, and anxious, perhaps over-anxious, to identify herself with the "decent" people in the book, the defrauded booksellers. The moral issues Gilkey present disturb her, and Barltett is concerned not to be complicit with Gilkey's self-presentation as a populist bibliophile entitled to expensive books. Her strategy, however, is possibly counter-productive, for in her haste to stampede to the "good" people, she leaves the reader to defend Gilkey. Better to have told the story and trusted the reader to pull out the moral: that a life of petty fraud is difficult and tawdry; that books used merely to enhance status are no different from any other consumer good, be it a high-end car or designer clothes, and no less likely to provide more than an ephemeral fix.

Gilkey is a sleazy character, yet the nature of his self justification is not unique. His arguments are: Rare books are overpriced; the average person should have a shot at them; the only way the average person can have a shot at such books is to steal them. I've heard--actually more before the economic crash than after--variations of that theme fairly often from individuals who were highly compensated by the standards of our society and living with little or no chance of suffering the least want, and yet who complained of being underpaid and deserving more. Who do they compare themselves too? Wall Street CEOs, of course. The mind-boggling pay and bonus scales of the few leave some of the rest feeling entitled to more--and sometimes with the mentality, like Gilkey, that they should get more any way they can. Add to that the sense that many of the rich at the top of the heap accumulated their vast fortunes immorally, and the "why not me?" mentality becomes easier to justify. If the game is rigged, you take what you can. The point is, for all Bartlett's black and white morality, Gilkey, while sordid, didn't seem to me to be particularly "other" in his thinking. Neither are he (nor the people who compare themselves to CEOS) entirely wrong in an innate sense the pie is not divided fairly in this culture.

Gilkey seemed fairly typical too in that he fell into the common belief that ownership is everything. However, while the rich, by definition, will always be able to buy things the rest of us can't, another form of wealth we can all take joy in is appreciating beautiful and rare objects without having to own them. This is what museums--and behind museums, the belief in a civic, public, shared space in society--are all about.

Finally, we get to the Quaker testimony of equality, and excerpts from a book I am reading in my Conflict Resolution class called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. No matter how, wealthy a society, if disparities between rich and poor grow too wide, trust evaporates and the differences between people, not their commonalities, become accentuated. This makes the poor more desperate and alienated and the rich more anxious and stressed. While Gilkey is not entitled to rare books, all of us as a society would arguably do better if people like Gilkey had more access to society's fruits.

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