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Saturday, November 7, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much


I recently picked up The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (herein TMWLBTM) by Allison Hoover Bartlett for 2 reasons, it was set in San Francisco (to which I was traveling), and I love books about books (shocking I know). TMWLBTM is marketed as being similar to The Orchid Thief; while I agree Bartlett was definitely influenced by Orlean's book , TMWLBTM does not live up to Orleans' outstanding book. That is not to say TMWLBTM is not good, it is good, but not great.

Here's the basics on plot. Bartlett has too main characters here, John Gilkey the book thief and Ken Sanders the rare book store owner who helped to catch him. Bartlett meets with both men, tells their stories, and tries to understand Gilkey's motivation. However, it is when Bartlett is giving the details of how the rare book industry works that the book is most compelling.

Sanders is a great hero. He worked very hard to convince American rare book sellers to create a database to share their info about stolen items. Gilkey, on the other hand, is not a strong villain. He is weak and wishy-washy. Although he has strong feelings about why he is entitled to steal the books, they do not make sense, to me. Bartlett struggles with this too. It is not her fault, but it does effect the ultimate power of her book.

Appeal: People who like books about books will enjoy this book. The details about the rare book industry give this an "insiders" feel that many will enjoy. The author writes in a very conversational tone; she is talking to the reader as if she is our friend, and she is both telling us a story and confiding her own secrets to us. This book is extremely open ended. Bartlett never figures out Gilkey's main motivation for compulsively stealing books, she never gets him to tell her where the biggest stash is hidden, and we still have many questions after turning over the last page. It is not Bartlett's fault that her protagonist/villain is not as interesting as we (and she) hope him to be, but readers can be left wanting more after finishing TMWLBTM. TMWLBTM is a quick read that will hold your interest while you are reading but may leave readers unsatisfied.

Readalikes: TMWLBTM is being compared to The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and rightfully so, but Orlean's book is the gold standard and TMWLBTM is paying homage. If you haven;t ever read The Orchid Thief, try it.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz is another good suggestion. Here, Horwitz looks into the lives of people who are obsessed with the history of the Confederacy.

For those who liked the book aspects in TMWLBTM, try The Professor and the Madman about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, which includes information about the OED's biggest contributor, an insane, incarcerated murderer. For these readers I would really suggest just about any book about books or book lovers here.

For fiction suggestions try, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and these mysteries about books.

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