If you’ve been in my office or in our home, you know I love books. Books are wedged tightly on our shelves and stacked several high on our nightstands. I have a poster in my office that reads, “Wear the old coat and buy the new book.”
When my kids ask what I want for Christmas, books always make the list (as do ties). The very first gift I gave Linda was a copy of John White’s classic, The Fight (I realize that doesn’t score high on the romance scale).
So it’s no surprise I was intrigued (and incriminated) when I saw the title of Allison Hoover Bartlett’s book: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. The subtitle got me more interested: “The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession.”
Bartlett’s book chronicles the sad tale of John Charles Gilkey, a unassuming, mild-mannered guy who stole thousands of dollars worth of rare books from antique book dealers and local libraries. Gilkey was eventually tracked down and locked up in a state penitentiary.
Besides being a fascinating look into the world of rare books, Gilkey’s story is a cautionary tale about the way deception works. The book describes the ingenious ways he deceived dealers and stole their valuable works. What Gilkey didn’t seem to realize was the way he was deceiving himself. He rationalized his thefts, claiming bookshop owners were hoarding treasures he deserved. He fanaticized that possessing first editions of classics made him a first-class human being.
On a deeper level, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is a kind of theological case study. Gilkey shows us what happens when our affections become obsessions. When we confuse good things with ultimate things. When we become idolaters.
The book of 1 John ends with this warning: “Dear children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). Evidently, we all have a pull towards idolatry. John Calvin once wrote that “the human heart is a perpetual factory of idols.” Gilkey made idols out of rare books. Others of us make idols of human praise, cutting edge technology, TV sports or even another person. Idolatry happens whenever we give something or someone the place in our lives that rightfully only belongs to God.
John Gilkey loved all kinds of old, classic books–except for one book. There was one book he said he stayed away from. There was one book he didn’t want to own. Not surprisingly, that one book was…the Bible.