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“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

This is a book about obsession! What is it about BOOKS? Many of us love them, but we’re able to control our larcenous impulses in bookstores and libraries. Allison Bartlett interviewed John Charles Gilkey, who repeatedly employed credit card fraud to get the rare books he craved. She also writes about Ken Sanders, a bookseller who organizes security for a national booksellers association. He deplores the low priority the police establishment puts on recovery of stolen volumes.

One problem a reporter like Bartlett encounters is that, if you really find out how a thief operates, you are in danger of becoming complicit in the crimes!

Gilkey was caught in 2003 and served 18 months in San Quintin prison. Wikipedia says he was arrested again in 2010, for stealing antique maps. I wonder where he is now?


“The Word Detective – A Memoir – Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary” by John Simpson

This book sounds dry, but it’s not! John Simpson worked for/on the Oxford English Dictionary for 40 years, but never got bored, and his autobiography, likewise, is consistently interesting. (Yes, there is a bound, hard back copy of the OED in my house, two volumes, along with a magnifying glass. Yes, I have consulted it. But not often.)

The OED deals with the origins of words, as well as their contemporary meanings. As technology changes, unexpectedly old uses of words are often uncovered.

Where does the OED find its words? When Simpson began at the OED, they still employed readers, a technique highlighted in Simon Winchester’s wonderful book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. With this technique, books for perusal had to be carefully selected, in order to keep the volunteer readers interested.

Now, digital search techniques allow a far wider range. The OED looks for unfamiliar and/or new words everywhere – in catalogs and manuals and popular literature. They do require that a word achieve some level of use. A made up term that is used just once won’t turn up in the dictionary, but a word like “muggle” (non-magical person, JK Rowling) is included, because it has passed into general speech.

I realized (to my surprise) that I am a word snob! I’ve been rejecting neologisms like “blog” when I play Banagrams! Oh, dear… Time to loosen up a little. I’ve also rejected words on the basis of foreign origin, when Simpson would welcome them in. Words like “taco”.

Throughout the book, Simpson includes short essays on interesting words. Like “paraphernalia”, “redux” and “juggernaut”, as well as very familiar words like “marriage” and “deadline”.

The OED also includes phrases – up to three words, or is it four? For example “the thin red line”. Where was it first used? What did it mean then? How is it used now?

I wonder what would have happened if the information revolution hadn’t made it possible to convert the OED into an online “database”? Language is changing so quickly! I better learn to enjoy it.

Recent Reading

Hello, Friends! I’ve gotten WAY behind in writing for this blog. The last time I said that, I stated that the reasons were all positive – travel and other enjoyment. I’m afraid I can’t say the same this time. A close family member had serious health problems over the winter. I’ve been distracted, to put it mildly. Now, I can say (with cautious optimism) that things are back to normal.

For completeness sake, here’s a list of what I read but failed to write about:

“The Man Who Loved Books too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession ” by Alison Hoover Bartlett

Three novels by Alexander McCall Smith:

  • “The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine” from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
  • “Sunshine on Scotland Street”
  • “The Novel Habits of Happiness” (Isabel Dalhousie series)

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

“The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee

“The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin

“The Word Detective – A Memoir – Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary” by John Simpson

“The Glassblower” by Petra Durst Benning

“American Gods”: The Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman

So… I’ve been on a major fiction kick! Only two non-fiction titles in the list. One item in the Young Adult category, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue”. More female authors than male.

I’ll write about some or all of these sooner or later. Leave a message if there’s a book here about which you feel particularly curious. Thanks!

In Honor of MLK Day (2) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

In my January 16 post, I mentioned the danger of employment in the factories that I inspected. What were the hazards?

  • Dust. Most of the dirt was non-toxic, but I gained an appreciation for the concept of “while collar” work. Once in a while, I came home grimy.
  • Gases, vapors. Once I had to wear a mask. I was exhausted after a few hours. Once I exited a plant that made sticky labels with a definite buzz. What if I had worked there daily?
  • Hot metals. Foundries made me nervous. No two ways about it. I got a few burns in my clothing from sparks.
  • Equipment, including forklifts. OSHA style safety lines were in place, but I learned to stay close to my escorts.
  • Falls, overhead cables, ladders, tripping hazards. I wore a hard hat and developed a keen eye.
  • Noise and heat.

I learned that almost everyone likes to talk about his/her work, and most were willing to answer my questions, even outside the narrow focus of air pollution. I heard discussions about accidents. There were one or two fatalities in York during my time there. The first response always seemed to be to suggest that the victim had been drinking alcohol.

Once I was at an asphalt factory when there was an explosion. I went out with the manager, and watched an injured employee carefully evacuated by ambulance. He was in pain, but his life was not in danger.

Oddly, I had no contact with any OSHA inspectors, and didn’t know how to report the workplace hazards I observed. My estimate was that York County needed maybe three times as many OSHA inspectors as air pollution inspectors. Maybe 10 OSHA inspectors would have been enough to do the job right. Where were they?

I was also unable to report employees who looked too young for employment. I think the legal working age was 16. And I didn’t know how to report water pollution. It’s ALWAYS about communication.

How many people remember than Martin Luther King was in Memphis because of an occupational safety “incident” which led to a strike by sanitation workers? On February 1, 1968 two Memphis city employees collecting garbage had been crushed to death by malfunctioning equipment on the truck they drove. Safety features had been bypassed, the trucks improperly maintained. The workers died horribly, crushed and mangled. Even on a good day, a garbage collector’s working conditions and pay were abysmal. Rioting and confrontation in Memphis were inevitable.

What about the York riots? Were they similarly inevitable?

I refer you to the newspaper York Daily Record ( which, on April 19, 2016, ran an article titled “Silent no more: The murder of Lillie Belle Allen”. See link with my earlier blog post. Ms. Allen is the African-American woman who died in the York Race Riots of 1969. She was 27 years old, just a little older than I was when I moved to York.

The cast of characters in this tragedy is extensive, and if you really want to follow it, you may need to sketch out a time line.

  • Lillie Belle Allen was visiting her sister when she drove into York.
  • Tom Kelley was a prosecutor who worked for the York County District Attorney, 30+ years later. He brought eleven men to trial.
  • Donnie Altman was part of the crowd that fired at Ms. Allen’s car. No one knows whose bullet killed her. Altman took his own life in 2000, when the murder case was reopened.

Why did York erupt in riots in 1968 and 1969? One trigger was a decision (several years previous) to adopt a very aggressive (punitive? military?) policing style. Beginning in 1962, barking police dogs patrolled York’s African-American neighborhoods night after night after night. Black leaders appealed for relief. It was denied. An officer fired on (or above) a group of Black teens who threw rocks at a police car. The officer faced no disciplinary action for his irresponsibility.

One thing that strikes me about these riots is that they were a form of “proxy” war. Not everyone was involved. Mostly, young men carried out the fighting, teenaged Black male youth against the White male police department. I’ve read the theory that war, in general, is a way that old men with power get rid of the young men who (inevitably) challenge their leadership over time. The subtlety is that two groups of old men oversee the destruction of EACH OTHER’S young challengers.

I can’t recount the whole history here. The York Daily Record article by Kim Strong provides a good summary and profiles a number of individuals, but I suspect there’s more to know. Wikipedia has an entry under “1969 York race riot”.

After the shooting of 22 year old Officer Henry Schaad (he died 2 weeks later), white police officers incited vigilantism on the part of white youths, telling them to “protect their neighborhoods” and raising the specter of Black militants (the Black Panthers) trying to “take over” York. Over time, a mob of armed white youths coalesced around the home of a white gang leader.

Lillie Bell Allen and her family unwittingly drove into this “ambush”. Many shots were fired in a short time.

York, a shocked and devastated city, somehow retreated into uneasy peace. There were no riots the next summer. No one was charged in either of the two riot deaths. Some people saw the outcome as a draw, one Black person and one white person dead. I don’t know if a comprehensive list of seriously injured people exists. Property damage, almost exclusively in African American neighborhoods, was extensive.

This was the city I moved to four years later.

What did I observe? I lived and worked in the City of York proper, not in a suburb. I saw de facto segregation in housing. (It seems to have been a feature of every place I lived until I reached Pomona, NJ.) I took an exercise class at the York YWCA. There was one black woman in a class of 30 or so women. There was noticeable poverty and considerable deteriorated housing. My church was located on the border of a dense urban neighborhood. All the attenders were white. Street crime seemed minimal. I heard ONE racial slur, from a blue collar, factory worker neighbor, but I also picked up less explicit white hostility. If there were gangs, they kept a low profile.

So whatever the racial situation was in York, I pretty much missed it. Two years is a short time to live in a community. I moved in a small orbit. It never occurred to me to go looking around outside of it.

Many years later, in 1999, the murder of Lillie Bell Allen attracted the attention of a young York County prosecutor. With very little information, the case was reopened (there is no statute of limitation on murder) and the murder was investigated. Many of the people involved were still living in York and the vicinity. Eleven men were charged, some with murder, others with lesser crimes There was one suicide. At least two men were sentenced to prison for second degree murder.

Additionally, two men were convicted of second degree murder in the death of Henry Schaad.

What did I learn by looking back on this? Hard to say. That the appearance of a community can be deceiving. That it takes a long time to understand what we now label as “white supremacy” and racism. That I still have a lot to learn.

“Facing Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

The Napoleonic Wars seem to attract imaginative attention, being fictionalized by everyone from Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey and Maturin series, 20 volumes) to Suzanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, see my blog entry of February 2, 2018). The site Goodreads offers a list of 135 novels set in that era, but the number of authors involved is much fewer. What makes the Napoleonic era so compelling? Anyone have a theory?

Mary Ann Trail’s recently published second book, Facing Enemies, is set in 1803. It begins in Dublin, but most of the action takes place in France.

And there’s plenty of action! This book is engaging and fast paced. The characters are well drawn, and the bad guys are REALLY bad. I had no trouble dashing through this book during a busy week. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. I hope there’s a sequel pending! Some of the characters are too good to leave behind.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Do you believe in magic? Do you like historical fiction? If you answer “yes” to either question, this book is for you. It falls into the oddball category of fantasy historical fiction.

The setting is England (mostly) during the Napoleonic Wars. A number of characters are historical figures, like the Duke of Wellington and members of the British royal family.

Despite the title, there are many more than two important characters in this book, and sometimes I had trouble keeping them straight. Some characters that seem minor become the focus of important plot twists.

The author has a “grand scale” imagination, creating a world in which the supernatural intersects with “ordinary” life. The plot is mostly an adventure story. The language is lively.

Unusual for a work of fiction, this book has footnotes! I skipped them because my e-reader is awkward, but you will enjoy the book more, I think, if you read them as you go along.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is long, but you couldn’t do better for a rainy weekend at the beach.

In honor of MLK Day (1) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

Silent No More

(The Murder of Lillie Belle Allen.)

First, the link above… an exceptional article.

What do I remember about York, PA? I lived there from 1973 to 1975, call it two years, my first two years after finishing college.

Why write about this? Because I just stumbled on a Facebook post pertaining to the “York race riots” of 1968 and 1969. I lived in York for TWO YEARS, only five years later, without know anything about this calamity. Without hearing a word about two people who died (Ms Allen, named above and a police officer named Henry Schaad) and the state of war that had existed between the police and government of York and its African American citizens. HOW DID I MISS THIS? And can I learn something from it now, almost 50 years later?

Why York, PA? What was I doing there? Why write about it now?

First I should explain that I “finished” college with two degrees, BS in Chemistry from Michigan State University in 1971 and MS in (Analytical) Chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1973. I had graduated from high school in 1967, so you can tell I went through college in a straight line, four years for the BS and two more for the MS. But most of my summers were not devoted to study. I spent two summers working as a lifeguard (easy, but long hours), three summers traveling (8 glorious months, total!) and one summer on the Penn State campus, doing the laboratory work for my MS degree. I never returned to academe as a student.

Penn State was a great platform for job hunting, and 1973 was not a bad year for Chemistry graduates. I had numerous on campus interviews, traveled to visit some big name employers (like Dupont) and was invited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources to work in its Bureau of Air Quality at a district office in York. I accepted that offer.

For someone with my educational background, this was a career change, undertaken before I had a career. The first Earth Day, in 1970, while I was at Michigan State, had raised my conscious (or at least altered it) and I was less interested in the science of chemistry and more interested in its application to the problems of environmental pollution. Required, at Penn State, to choose among the traditional disciplines of Chemistry (organic, physical, analytical and inorganic), I focused on Analytical Chemistry, for two reasons.

  • I thought I could always count on getting a job in Quality Control, somewhere.
  • And I thought the Chemistry of pollutants would be interesting and relevant.

So, at Penn State, I learned that pollution was studied by engineers, and I took a few engineering courses. Very few. Two air pollution classes, and three or four single credit seminars in water pollution and solid waste management. This meager list qualified me as an “expert” in those early days of environmental regulation.

I’ve no idea why I was assigned by the Bureau of Air Quality to York. I didn’t look very closely at the City itself. The office was new, located in a shabby rental downtown, and very small. We peaked at one supervisor (very young), four air quality inspectors and two support staff.

The work had nothing at all to do with chemistry, and I was on a fast learning curve. We inspected factories, reviewed emissions inventories, investigated complaints of smoke and malodors and serviced a few simple air sampling devices. We kept records when the state sent its stack testing team to our area. We testified in court when we caught a polluter in the act. It was varied and interesting, and we felt we were fighting “the good fight”.

What about York? A friend of a friend was teaching at York Penn State. An apartment was available in the house where she lived. I moved in with my meager graduate student furnishings. Adult at last!

What did I think about York? Well, compared to what? Suburbia? The campus of a large public university? I was decisively an outsider in York. When I called about moving into the apartment in my friend’s house, the owner asked me to meet her at the mall. We had a cup of coffee, discussed the rent and my desire to paint the rooms, and made a deal. The landlady asked “Are you a teacher or a nurse?” I explained about being an air pollution inspector, but I don’t remember her reaction. I knew (but I can’t say how), that the meeting over coffee had been a color check. I was a “desirable” tenant.

Having watched the integration efforts in off campus housing at Michigan State, I was not surprised.

York was a shabby industrial city, with all kinds of manufacturing mixed into the neighborhoods of apartments, row houses and slightly nicer homes. A cement factory loomed over West York, slowly turning it to stone. (Not kidding.) An iron foundry operated on the east side of town. A national corporation produced sports equipment and 500 pound bombs just north of the city. (Again, not kidding.) A smelly old factory turned out asphalt roofing. What else? Potato chips, and (!) York Mints. Yes, you can still buy them. Where are they made today? In all, about 1000 industrial sources operated in my working territory. A few dozen qualified as major pollutors.

For me, every day was an adventure. I drove around York, Adams and Franklin counties, occasionally striking fear into polluters, who didn’t take their air pollution issues very seriously, and who hated being challenged by a young, female college graduate. I was ignored until the first “certified nastygram” arrived in a corporate office, threatening legal action. At most, fines of around $100 were levied, but business owners HATED to pay up.

If there was an obvious piece of the American social agenda unfolding around me, it pertained, not to race, but to workplace health and safety. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) had been enacted two years earlier (1971) and the first enforcement “pass” through York had been fierce. So when I walked in to enforce air pollution regulations, the reception was frosty. However, the experience of being inspected and judged (and occasionally dragged into court) by a young woman was so novel that most business managers, entirely perplexed, treated me with reasonable politeness. My male colleagues were hassled a bit more than me, but none of us was harmed. (I had one close call.)

The federal government was in the process of taking over or at least regulating occupational health and safety, and environmental protection. These were big, important changes with significant consequences. I observed that the factories I inspected were rather dangerous places.

To be continued…