Sunday, March 14, 2010

The pleasure of the pursuit

Whatever collecting is, it isn’t a hobby. It’s an obsession, an addiction. You get tired and a little annoyed of people humouring you, smiling indulgently when you speak of your obsession, as if it were some stamp and coin collecting phase from high school that you hadn’t outgrown as an adult...

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why we collect at all? Not just books — why do we collect anything? The theorist Jean Baudrillard undertook to answer this in several essays. His conclusions are not the cheeriest. The impulse to collect, he declared grandly, is regressive, the passion, escapist and the gratification, illusory!
The objects we collect, he pointed out, mirror us: “Here lies the whole miracle of collecting. For it is invariably oneself that one collects.” And so it would seem the goal — at least one of them — in collecting is to never complete a collection. Because to complete a collection is a kind of death.
The elusive object is what a collector is after. To find everything one is looking for takes away the pleasure of the pursuit; the chase, the hunt for the missing object is what drives a collector. (Which is why the father of modern book collecting, ASW Rosenbach, once famously quipped: “Next to love, collecting is the greatest sport.”)
Baudrillard points to one other crucial factor in the impulse to collect: That in an age of “faltering religious and ideological authorities,” objects “are by way of becoming the consolation of consolation, an everyday myth capable of absorbing all our anxieties about time and death.” At the heart of collecting is also a need to find order. Even to find oneself. It requires desire, knowledge, curiosity, pursuit and observation. Any modern person can tell you how hard it is to invest in human relationships, but to invest in things is easier. You can depend on things, trust them. Control them. The object is the perfect pet! And I suppose it isn’t far fetched to think of the things we collect as toys for adults to play with.

Bold and bizarre
Invariably, in talking about collecting, the bizarre crops up: People who collect strange things. Not just high art but kitsch, too. And tales of extreme forms of collecting, and deadly obsessions. Paul Theroux once profiled an Anthony Burgess collector (probably fictional but no less interesting for it) in the New Yorker, who, in addition to owning everything Burgess had ever written, also possessed two old passports of Burgess, some concert tickets he had once used and an umbrella he had left behind at a bookshop.
Bibliomania, Flaubert’s first published story (he was 15) perfectly illustrates how it can all go very wrong. The story is about a Spanish monk who was ‘literally willing to kill to possess a book he wanted for his collection.’
Flaubert actually based it on a true case of bibliomania. In 1830, a Spanish monk named Don Vincente looted his own monastery’s library of rare books, left the order and a few months later surfaced as an antiquarian bookseller in Barcelona! People grew suspicious, but those were the early days of bibliomania and few knew how exactly the mania manifested. Soon, the former monk turned book dealer was showing more interest in buying books than selling them. ‘For own use only’, he would say when someone asked to buy a book from his bookshop. In 1836, a rival bookseller won the bid at a book auction for a coveted rare volume, the only surviving copy of Edicts for Valencia, printed in 1482 by Spain’s first printer, Lamberto Palmart.

Full report here Deccan Herald

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