From the University of Southern Mississippi’s Mississippi Review
comes yet another fascinating article on collecting and some of its passions and pathologies
Kim A. Herzinger
When I was about five, I had a collection of what my parents and I called “little men.” They were, in fact, tiny rubber or plastic cowboys, cavalrymen, Indians, and horses, along with the occasional wagon, I suppose, which I would spread out on the floor in various patterns–usually the long procession or the horde. I did not, I think, develop elaborate action scenarios for these figures, nor did I care particularly about what they represented, or how finely made they were, or how brilliantly colored or detailed. What I liked was the sheer mass of them. They were only interesting when it seemed as if there were too many of them, more than you might think reasonable or possible. I don’t know how many there were in fact, but it seemed to me like thousands, a vast army of figures moving across my bedroom floor, filling and thus transforming the room with their presence. It was fine that they were small. Their very smallness made my room larger, epic, like the monumental terrain which dwarfs the human figures in a John Ford western. My room was a better room when it was of epic size and epic importance. I would often trail a few cowboy laggards slightly behind the main group, barely visible, and just below the bedskirt. It was a way of suggesting, or of allowing me to imagine, that there might be multitudes more under that bed, now hidden from view but in a short time, perhaps, bursting out of the darkness and joining the others. The visitor would think he had seen everything, more “little men” than anyone might reasonably expect, but just when he thought he had seen it all–here’s more and more again! “Little men” were my first collection.
When I was about 10, I went to the county fair to ride the rides, see the sights, and eat badly. At some point, I found myself inside an exhibition hall where state and local politicians and political groups set out their wares. It must have been an election year. The room was jammed with brochures, bumper stickers, flyers, pamphlets. I began to gather them. What was important about this gathering was that I got them all, every one. What was clear was that if I didn’t get all of them, it was not worth doing. It was probably not my first experience of a passion for wholeness–every child desires completion every minute–but it was the first time I can remember that my desire for wholeness could be at least momentarily satisfied by collecting things. I forgot the rides, the sights, the food, and instead I gathered bales of the stuff. I left only after I was sure I had it all. In the car on the way home, driven by parents perhaps already wondering just what kind of child would choose to spend hours in the election hall rather than ride the Tilt-A-Twirl or eat corn dogs, I looked at every one, closely, one at a time, tolling up the glory of my labors. I now remember only those from the John Birch Society. The printing on those looked different, furious, as furious–as it turned out–as their message. One informed me that putting flouride in the water was a Communist plot and that in one Florida community the death rate had risen precipitously since the local, Communist-inspired government had started flouridating. The numbers were astounding and, even to a ten-year-old, absolutely convincing. I was worried. My parents seemed unconcerned. It turned out, of course, that this particular Florida community had become a retirement center just about the time that flouride had been introduced. The John Birch Society had used correct numbers but had explained those numbers in a twisted, paranoid way. So this, my second collection, had taught me something worth knowing. Don’t always trust the numbers, and never trust the John Birch Society.
From 1954 until about 1962, I collected baseball cards. An older relative had given me his collection as well, so I had cards from about 1948 until 1962 in fairly massive numbers. It was my favorite collection. When my family took a trip to New York in 1956 I insisted on taking my cards with me. They went, in their own small, brown cardboard suitcase dedicated to the purpose. Summer days were given over to the care and feeding of the collection. After all, on any day you might buy a lucky pack of cards containing something you did not have or a prized duplicate you could surely trade. Any day you might run into some pitiable cardholder who thought your Foster Castleman and Jerry Priddy were worth his Ken Boyer.
My baseball card collection was the first that required some knowledge. You had to know who these players were. You had to know that a Foster Castleman and a Jerry Priddy did not equal the value of a Ken Boyer, and never would. You had to know that Jim Konstanty was a better pitcher than Don Mossi, but that Don Mossi was a better card to own because Don Mossi was a most unsightly man, the ugliest player in the history of baseball. You had to know which cards were a dime a dozen and which were truly difficult to get. I seem to remember that the Topps company once claimed that the cards were put out in equal numbers, and that if you bought their packs regularly no card should be any more difficult to come by than any other. It just wasn’t so. Where I lived, at least, you couldn’t get a Stan Musial in any pack at any time. Yogi, sure. Mickey, fine. Whitey, anytime. But Stan? No. Stan was impossible, the goal of all trades, all queries, all strategies. Stan was rare, and for the first time I got a taste of a desire for rarity. Excitement and despair.
As a collector, if not as a human being, I learned a great deal from collecting baseball cards. The first lesson was an easy one. Mass accumulation was not everything. It was more important to have the best cards, the stars and the rarities, rather than thousands of nonentities. The search for Stan Musial had taught me that. And so had my friends. They wanted to see the star cards. They wondered if I had the `56 Mantle or the new Maris. They didn’t seem to care much about the numbers. Oh yes, they would gasp when I showed them the whole stockpile, but they wanted to hold the really good cards. They wanted to get those cards in their hands and fondle them. I felt the same way, so I did something that no mere accumulator would ever do: I put the best cards in one box and the vast numbers in another. I decreased size for quality. And I never looked back.
The second lesson was perhaps more significant. Around 1961, a friend of mine somehow got his father to buy him boxes of cards which constituted the entire yearly series. There they were, every single card available, not bought pack by pack with the excitement and despair which inevitably attended each, no, but everything all at once. It was a sure thing, and there is a good deal to be said about the virtues of sure things, but . . . but it was too easy. There was nothing to it, no search, no strategy. It just wasn’t right. If it were going to be this easy, I thought, then it was not worth doing. The fun was in the triumph of the find, not in mere ownership. There was no magic attached to cards got that way; they were just cards. If people were going to collect their baseball cards like that, then I wasn’t going to do it at all. It was a premonition of the Reagan years. I collected despondently for another year or so, perhaps hoping this new mode of collection, based as it was on wealth and not initiative and skill, would go away. It didn’t and I just stopped.
In my high school years, though, I discovered books. And in graduate school I discovered first editions. And all was right with the world again.
So now I collect books, first editions of British and Commonwealth fiction published since mid-century. This does not seem to me at all peculiar, and–unlike collections of beer labels, bottle caps, or barbed wire–my collection does not even seem particularly peculiar to those who know me. After all, I can say to myself and they can say to themselves, I teach 20th-century British literature. I am passionate about my subject. My collection can be represented as having a scholarly patina, a respectable sheen. And too, as I often tell those who wonder how I started–they are actually wondering why I started–some twenty years ago I could buy a first edition of most of these books more cheaply than I could buy paperback copies of the same books.
Things, alas, are hardly like that now, but even now collecting British and Commonwealth fiction published since mid-century is unlikely to bankrupt me, at least immediately. I can also say that books are plentiful, they are everywhere, to be found even in the muggy, non-reading part of the world I live in. Everywhere you go, I say, there are books, so everywhere you go can be experienced as the site of a quest, the prospective solution to a problem. As I enter a particularly unpromising bookshop I can say, “Yes, yes, but it only takes one.” The Grail–actually a pristine copy of Lucky Jim–is, after all, supposed to turn up in the most unlikely places.
All this is true, of course, but it’s not the Truth. It eludes the real question: I am not just buying books, I am collecting them. So why am I doing that? Why does a collector collect? That’s the real question, and the answer, I fear, suggests precisely why the collector conjures so many handsome ways to elude it.
I’ll offer two answers. Here’s the simple one: collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs. It functions as a form of wish fulfillment which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread. This is psychologist Werner Muensterberger’s conclusion, more or less, and it sounds good and is no doubt pretty accurate. The collector is a sick man, brothers and sisters, but he’s sick in a very ordinary way. Only his remedies are extraordinary.
But here’s the difficult answer: collecting is a passion. And collecting, like most passions, has the capacity to let you live in another world for a while. If I could tell you why passion allows us to inhabit another world, I would stop collecting. I just wouldn’t need it any more. Passion is as inexplicable as magic, and magic is just one of our names for the inexplicable.
Walter Benjamin once said, “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.” Like a child, the collector absorbed by his collection “dreams his way not only into a remote or bygone world, but at the same time into a better one.” An object in a collection is mana-laden. Its mysterious charisma exists, however, only when it is part of a collection or potentially part of a collection. The collection constitutes the magic circle which imbues the object with its wizard aura. This means that an object, no matter how individually important, can never be as significant to a collector as one, no matter how individually unimportant, which takes its magic place inside the circle. You’re a beer label collector and you’re offered a new, rare label, recently peeled from the source. Over here, though, you might have a pristine copy of a first edition. You can have one or the other. You take the label. It’s imbued with magic.
The collector alone with his collection is a spooky thing to see. He stares at it as if in a trance, transfixed and blissfully absorbed, oblivious to the external world. He has entered the dream world, the “better world” that Benjamin mentions, that only his collection can inspire. He gets up once in a while to hold an object, to confirm that what’s there is still there. He thinks about reconfiguring the collection in some way or other, a way of renewing its magic and enhancing its power. The collector is, in fact, engaged in a kind of worship. He is experiencing the kind of sensory transcendence that we most closely associate with religion or love. And, like religion or love, his collection is a kind of security against uncertainty and loss.
The collector feels something akin to satisfaction and relief when he obtains something for his collection. The object is then his, a part of him and an extension of him. When Benjamin talks about the magic circle of a collection he relates it to the “thrill of acquisition,” a subject about which Benjamin is just a touch sour. But he nevertheless realizes that the collector must own his collection. There is no other way. A collection of borrowed objects is impossible, about as fulfilling as renting your friends. And, anyway, “acquisition” is the wrong word–the collector ingests the pieces of his collection. The magic surrounds him and it issues from him. Eat and grow tall, mom said.
A new object in a collection functions like a child’s security blanket or favorite doll. It compensates, as they do, for needs harbored but not met. This is to say that the objects in a collection, like the security blanket and the doll, are symbolic replacements for something missing, and what’s usually missing is someone–mom, pop, brother, sister, husband, wife, lover, friend. A collection compensates for loss or absence because it repopulates the collector’s world. Not to put too fine a point on it then, but, simply put, a collection takes the place of people. Perhaps this is why collectors number among the world’s true grotesques. Witness Thomas Phillipps of Stow-on-the-Wold, a 19th-century collector–an accumulator really–who once declared that he wanted to own “one copy of every book in the world,” and who drove two wives and three children literally out of house and home to do it. Every room of his vast manor house was stuffed with books and manuscripts and, according to one visitor, “The windows of the house are never opened, and the close confined air & smell of the paper & MSS. is almost unbearable. . . . It is quite sickening!” Witness J. Paul Getty. Witness Imelda Marcos. Witness William Randolph Hearst. Witness me, standing in line for a writer to sign my books, after having cajoled four other people to stand in line with me, each carrying three or four of my books, so as to save me the embarrassment of plunking down all 17 at once. It’s happened. I may be a grotesque, but I am not a public grotesque.
What is truly fulfilling for the collector, of course, is finding and obtaining a rarity. It is the rarity which confirms the collector’s sense of his own worth, his taste, his initiative, his power. But beware, there are two kinds of rarities for a collector: a rarity in the great world, and rarity in his collection. Everybody has half an idea about something that is rare in the great world. Economic systems run on the idea, after all, and everybody knows that having a rarity is a splendid thing to have. Collectors are no different. For them, something rare in the great world is an especially splendid thing. Many collectors spend their life and their savings in search of it–as long as it can become part of a collection. But the collector has an advantage when it comes to the rarity. A collector’s collection determines rarity because rarity in a collection is anything that should be there but isn’t. It does not have to be rare in the world’s eyes, it needs only to be something previously absent, the something that will replace the nothing that is there now. And here we have a key to the continuing ability of a collection to, again, at least momentarily fulfill the desires of the collector. We have all seen the collector’s emotions when he comes upon something he does not have. We watch him experience a thrill and pleasure entirely unrelated to the inherent worth of the object. We’ve all seen it, but we don’t understand it. Here comes the collector now, exploding with pleasure over his find, barely able to contain himself. And then he shows us an eggshell, a piece of string, or a first edition of a book by Roger Mais, and then he explains that it is important because . . . because . . . he does not have one. We don’t understand because we can’t understand. It’s his magic circle and we are forever outside it.
That so much can be bestowed by so little is the collector’s advantage forever.
The thrill of obtaining an object the collector does not have–however insignificant it may be in the eyes of the world–arises from the collector’s sense that the new object is just one less fragment that needs to be marshaled in the quest to complete his dream of wholeness. A collection begins as a concept, a kind of Platonic ideal, and its magic can take hold only after the collector has been able to feed the concept enough nourishment that he can begin to see it taking its Platonic shape. That shape constitutes wholeness, and the dream of wholeness constitutes the power of the magic circle. Magic circles, though, cannot have too many breaks in them–the magic has a tendency to leak out of the exits. Every collector feels his gaps. He is incomplete until the grating absence can be filled. He wants to be reconnected to the part of himself that is missing.
Wholeness needs to be differentiated from allness. To the collector, wholeness means that he has all the right things. It does not mean that he has everything, because if the collector has everything he inevitably has a vast number of the wrong things. A raggedy sense of indiscriminacy begins to make itself felt, and wrong things jostle with right things and decrease their magic. Still, it should be said that, to a certain extent at least, every collector wants to achieve allness. The shadow of Thomas Phillipps of Stow-on-the-Wold hangs over us all. But for most of us, allness is the dream that lies beyond the dream. It is only when the collector confronts his own secret desire for allness that he acquaints himself with the reality principle. We have all read or heard about people who are afflicted with a desire for allness so overwhelming that they literally collect everything, the effluvia of their lives. They stuff their houses with their stuff. These are accumulators, not collectors. The collector gasps at such a condition, but he gasps with a secret knowledge and secret understanding.
Collectors are sly when it comes to this problem. They realize that they may have allness within wholeness. Now this seems a paradox, but it’s not. A collector selects a category–books, let us say. Within that larger category there is a sub-category–oh, let’s say British and Commonwealth fiction published since mid-century. Attaining allness is, of course, a much more likely possibility with the sub-category, but even it is effectively unattainable. The collector then discriminates on behalf of the possibility of wholeness: he will collect only the most significant and the most rare of all of those in the sub-category. But he will go on to select a sub-sub-category–let’s say the works of Doris Lessing or V. S. Naipaul, shall we–where he attempts to achieve allness. All of Lessing, all of Naipaul. The collector can have it both ways.
Completion is both the greatest aspiration and greatest apprehension for the collector because after completion there is a possibility that there is nothing. And nothing is what collectors fear most.
Werner Muensterberger can help us here: For the collector, “There has to be an almost continual flow of objects to collect. It is this flow that helps sustain the collector’s captivation. It might be expected that, since scarcity tends to increase the value and importance of an object, collectors would aim for specimens that are not readily available. Yet almost the exact opposite is true. It has been proven that collectors tend to lose interest in certain types of items when supply diminishes. Clearly, a more or less steady though sometimes difficult flow is essential. . . . Collectors who as a rule insist on specialization, and then make a point of owning only the very best or rarest objects, narrow the area of availability while fostering an almost ritual aura of uncertainty and suspense. Such collectors seek distinction through perfection, but the perfection can only be obtained at a price, namely more or less perpetual apprehension.”
The collector experiences apprehension at the thought of completing his collection, and apprehension at the thought of never completing his collection. The reader will notice that my collection is open-ended. New books of fiction published by British and Commonwealth writers since mid-century rush through the open gate of my dream collection every five minutes or so, since authors old and new simply persist in producing potentially mana-laden objects. Of the two kinds of apprehensions just noted, it’s pretty clear to me which one I fear most.
But, of course, the collector has plenty of other apprehensions to choose from. Every collector has at one time or another experienced apprehension because he is able, at least momentarily, to see exactly what he’s doing. He sees himself as others see him, and what he sees isn’t pretty. In the worship of his collection, he’s spent too much money, ignored too many other things, sacrificed himself and others. It’s a noble moment for the collector, but it usually doesn’t last very long.
But nothing stings the collector as badly as making a mistake. It’s bad enough to buy a first edition that turns out to be a Book Club edition, or a fine copy of a book that turns out to be missing page 86. But the worst sting comes from the things he didn’t buy. They were in his grasp, and he failed his dream. In 1981, I saw a first edition of Lucky Jim for $105. It had a torn dust jacket and it was a bit darkened and $105 seemed like a lot of money. It was a lot of money. So I left it behind. I’ve never seen another. And when I do it’ll cost $1,600. I will inevitably confront Lucky Jim sometime, and when I do I am apprehensive, already, that it will be a very expensive confrontation.
I once had a very good friend, a record collector, who was showing me around his jazz collection. At some point, after itemizing some of the choicest items, he fell into a kind of silent ache, apparently disappointed with my response–or lack of it. “Well, you know,” he said, “once I hoped my collection would get me some girls, but they don’t seem to think much of it either.” The collector all too often embodies humanity at its most pathetic.
There is, a collector must admit, a certain disappointment in the fact that other people just don’t care very much about his collection. They do not care, or they do not care enough, and the collector soon realizes–or should–that nobody can ever care enough. It is simply not possible. As Werner Muensterberger points out, “Children can never love another’s toys in the way they love their own.” The collector is left, then, to manufacture other reasons why a person should care or, if not care, at least admire. So the collector attempts to dazzle by announcing how much money the collection is worth. Surely, the collector thinks, this non-admiring dorkus can understand that–he is, after all, an American, and Americans always understand that. But substituting money for passion has never been any good. The onlooker simply thinks the collector is pretentious or, worse, someone willing to admit publicly that he abuses his funds. The collector, too, is unsatisfied. He feels as if he’d just tried to convince someone that the reason Ken Griffey is his favorite ballplayer is because of the number he wears on his back. Both leave the room sadly, silently complaining to themselves about human folly.
And things go no better with other collectors. Simply put, no collector can explain to another collector why he collects what he collects. One would think, perhaps, that there must be some sort of secret understanding, a special handshake or something, between collectors–some mystical linkage that would exist despite the fact that one collects, say, books, and the other stamps. Both, after all, have the “bug,” both have experienced the feelings collectors have when they bring in something new, or watch their collection swell. But there’s nothing. No secret understanding, no camaraderie, nothing. In fact, it’s worse than that. The stamp collector looks upon the book collector’s collection and thinks, “My God, he’s spent all that money and energy for mere books when, for all that, he could have been putting together a very fine stamp collection. What a colossal waste.” The stamp collector merely looks upon the book collector in the same way that non-collectors look at any collector. They look upon him as someone capable of wasting serious time or money or energy on something that simply cannot be cared about. The stamp collector reacts to the book collector in the way we all react to other people’s passions: we are amused by the silliness of it all, the ridiculous comic figures that people make of themselves when they are in love. We are momentarily envious, perhaps, of the lover when we observe him passing into a separate world of pleasure and fulfillment which is forever beyond us, but our envy is checked by our self-congratulation over how realistic we are. We are not the ones, after all, now behaving so comically, wasting so much money, and investing so much time in something so manifestly lusterless as that.
Well, you might reasonably think, at least other book collectors can appreciate your collection; at least they might love it with your passion. The answer to this would be an everlasting no. With them, one can’t even descend to that last resort, promoting admiration by talking about your collection’s monetary value. Each collector knows of the other’s animus against those who collect for reasons other than passion. This means, of course, that even this last gasp effort to foster longed-for praise is simply unavailable. With another book collector, there is simply nothing to be done.
I’ve collected first editions for twenty years now and no one has ever seen my collection with an appreciation which struck me as being even remotely adequate. Nor will there ever be such a one. Perhaps somewhere there is a book collector who collects precisely what I collect, with the same parameters, the same focus, the same way of weighing value. But I have never discovered such a person and I never expect to. Even if I did, only one thing would be certain: to him, my collection would merely be a love object possessed by the wrong person. I would have something that by all rights ought to be his. He would think, “You, sir, you do not deserve this.”
Other people cannot, can never, experience the magic that a collection has for the collector. It is disappointing, yes, and it gives rise to apprehensions that the collector has mis-lived his life somehow. But the collector has his own secret compensation. It is an ugly kind of revenge. It is the kind of revenge descended to by the moralist, the conspicuously pious, the early riser, the health food bibber. The collector can look upon the other, all others, and think, “This one, too, does not understand worth or value, and what should be most meaningful is cruelly absent in him. He does not know the glory of the life properly lived. Go fool, now you have seen the light, and sin no more.”
Pathetic, I say, but inevitable. And if you happen to have a first edition of a book by Roger Mais, please let me know. I’ll find Lucky Jim myself.