I have been a compulsive collector – starting with stamps, like most kids those days, when I was 10 years old, and moving on to match boxes, the rubber stamps underneath Cola caps, and comics. Stamps were peeled off letter envelopes, matchboxes picked up from the neighbourhood streets and Cola caps collected during trips to the market. Only the comics were bought but none was collectable at the time. I sometimes collected cricket photos cut out from newspapers and pasted them in a book.
From the ages of 15 to 25, studies took priority and then I dived deep into collecting with greater passion and obsession as my resources and finances improved. When I travelled internationally, I collected coins, postcards, masks and model cars. For the past two decades, though, I have been a serious book collector, specialising in rare and signed books.
So why do people collect something? Why is collecting things the world’s biggest hobby? Why are television shows like American Pickers, Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt and Pawn Stars so popular? Why are there more male collectors than female? Here are some of the books where you can find the answers.
One of my favourite books on collecting is Hunter Davies’ Confessions of a Collector. It is a perfect introduction to and a personal celebration of the strangely compelling world of collecting. I felt at peace after reading the book, knowing that there is a reason behind my madness!
Another of my favourites is On Collecting by Susan Pearce. Academic in nature, this book is invaluable to museum professionals, students and cultural historians, and also to the general reader who is curious about this social phenomenon. Pearce explores the psychology of collecting: why do we bestow value on certain objects and how does this add meaning to our lives? But if you want to know the range of things people collect, you must read Men and Collectors by Brian Jenner. Apparently people collect everything from beer mats, bean tins and lawnmowers to airline sick-bags!
My current book collection serves multiple purposes – reading in order to write, sometimes reading for pleasure and at other times buying a book only because it is a rare collectable. Every collector will tell you that the joy is in the hunt, and that often, once you get the object you lose interest.
Collectors also collect for the joy of completion. I often buy a sub-category of rare books (eg. signed books by Noble Laureates) and then spend time and energy trying to complete the collection or reach a landmark (eg. 100 books signed by Nobel Laureates). Once a category is completed you move to the next. But never underestimate the immense learning that occurs in the process of collecting. I must admit, my collecting has also become my escape and distraction in an otherwise busy schedule. My wife may be best suited to share the downsides of my obsession – we will keep that for another occasion!
Susan Pearce writes that every third person collects something. Famous collectors include President Franklin D Roosevelt(stamps), Andy Warhol (anything interesting), Ian Fleming(first editions), Tom Hanks (typewriters)and Rachel Whiteread(doll houses). Every collector collects for their own reason. With rapidly changing technology, many items have become instantly collectable – typewriters, mechanical clocks and telephones for example. And as people’s disposable income and leisure time increase, collecting will continue to flourish and grow.
As John Windle, the famous antiquarian bookseller told me, “People collect to stay alive and have a reason to live.”