I’d rather not admit it, but the fact is I think I am a collector, more than a reader. Or at least I seem to be doing a better job at collecting than at reading. But this is something I am constantly trying to remedy, believe me. A dear friend of mine always refers to my collection of books as my ‘harem’ whenever I talk about my latest acquisitions. This being the same friend who has just recently returned from a trip to Spain, and has especially sent me a postcard of the Alhambra Palace featuring the quarters where the ruler’s harem used to reside, while alluding to ‘mine’. :p
Digression aside, here is Susan Sontag’s idea of how a collector behaves.
Do you see yourself as fitting the description? 😉
by Susan Sontag
That tremor when you spot it. But you don’t say anything. You don’t want to make the present owner aware of its value to you; you don’t want to drive up the price, or make him decide not to sell at all. So you keep cool, you examine something else, you move or you go out, saying you’ll be back. You perform a whole theatre of being a little interested, but not immoderately; intrigued, yes, even tempted; but not seduced, bewitched. Not ready to pay even more than is being asked, because you must have it. So the collector is a dissembler, someone whose joy is never unalloyed with anxiety. Because there is always more. Or something better.
You must have it because it is one step toward an ideal completing of your collection. But this ideal completion for which every collector hungers for is a delusive goal. A complete set of something is not the completeness the collector craves. The entire production of some notable dead painter could conceivably, improbably, end up in someone’s palace or cellar or yacht. (Every last canvas? Could you, imperious acquirer, be sure there was not one more?) But even if you could be sure that you had every last item, the satisfaction of having it all would eventually, inevitably, decay. A complete collection is a dead collection. It has no posterity. After having built it, you would love it less each year. Before long, you would want to sell or donate it, and embark on a new chase.
The great collections are vast, not complete. Incomplete : motivated by the desire for completeness. There is always one more. And even if you had everything – whatever that might be – then you will perhaps want a better copy (version, edition) of what you have; or simply an extra copy, just in case the one you possess is lost or stolen or broken or damaged. A backup copy. A shadow collection. A great private collection is a material concentrate that continually stimulates, that overexcites. Not only because it can always be added to, but because it is already too much. The collector’s need is precisely for excess, for surfeit, for profusion. It’s too much – and it’s just enough for me. Someone who hesitates, who asks, Do I need this? Is this really necessary? is not a collector. A collection is always more than is necessary.
A collection is always more than is necessary.
How better to illustrate the point than with this excerpt from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller.
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And then you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.
With a rapid manoeuvre you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperbacks, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiousity, Not Easily Justified.
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable to a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.