A Janet Malcolm–style reflection on the ramifications of a reporter’s interaction with a criminal, in this case one with a bibliomania shared by the antiquarian book dealer pursuing him.
Over four years, John Charles Gilkey pilfered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare books, often with credit-card numbers obtained from his part-time job at Saks Fifth Avenue. As freelance journalist Bartlett points out, antiquarian-book theft occurs more frequently than that of fine art. Rather than advertise a theft that would inflame fears of lax security, dealers often prefer to stay quiet about losses. Gilkey’s passion—but not his larcenous instinct—was shared by Ken Sanders, a rare-book dealer and volunteer security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, who doggedly tracked the con man, sometimes at the expense of his own business. Sanders is part of a profession often composed of obsessives who do the work as a labor of love, barely making ends meet. Though she misses a few aspects of the business—e.g., does the Internet secure or tighten dealers’ control over their collections?—Bartlett is adept at explaining the mindset required for this trade. But as she interviews Gilkey and accompanies him on a few of his rounds, she finds herself asking questions about her project. Is she giving this narcissist attention that his crimes don’t merit? Is she responsible for reporting his crimes to police and unsuspecting book dealers? Many readers will disagree that Gilkey had “come to seem a happy man with goals, ambition, and some measure of success,” while supporting the opposite conclusion, that he was “greedy, selfish, criminal.”
Not only a “cautionary tale for those who plan to deal in rare books in the future,” but a demonstration of how a seasoned reporter can disregard the ethics of objectivity.