Endpaper Literary Review

A literature of collecting

In search of... Photo: R.V. Moorthy  

Standing among these overflowing books, you have to pause and ask yourself (or someone else is bound to ask it of you) why you do this. That is, why collect? The answer is complex and though there are charming, erudite and even radiant accounts on book collectors and what they collect, there is very little critical discussion on it. Richard Wendorf’s The Literature of Collecting is perhaps the sole exception. In his long opening essay he draws on literary theory, psychoanalysis and fiction to dig deep into why we collect and what it means.

Pradeep Sebastian

He explores Jean Baudrillard’s famous work on the subject where Baudrillard comes to the conclusion that the objects we collect mirror us: “For it is invariably oneself that one collects.” And a collection, he is quick to remind us, is never initiated to be completed! Baudrillard also warns us that the collecting impulse is regressive, the passion, escapist and the gratification, illusory. Why regressive? Because you invest in objects since investing in human relationships is hard and tricky. Also, when you are down and need to recover you seek the company of objects. The book is the perfect pet.

The elusive or missing book by its absence becomes valuable, and the pursuit is on to find it. ‘The collector’s passion is predicated on pursuit, not completion,’ notes Wendorf further. Baudrillard balances this dramatic reading of the need to collect with how objects ‘are by way of becoming the consolation of consolations’ in a world with faltering religious and ideological authorities, by absorbing our anxieties about time and death. Being absorbed in the pursuit of collecting displaces and even abolishes real time.

Wendorf sharply explicates and glosses each intriguing, melodramatic hypothesis of Baudrillard (collecting as a jealously system — other people can’t have it; ‘confining beauty in order to savour it in isolation’), and pushes further to look at other scholarly literature devoted to collecting, such as Werner Muensterberger and his psychoanalytic study of this ‘unruly passion’. For Muensterberger, collectibles are toys that grown-ups take seriously. (And what’s wrong with that, I ask you? Adults need toys too, and books are less mischievous than some other things). It is left to Susan Sontag to say a nice word or two in favour of collecting. The hero of Sontag’s The Volcano Lover trusts things because they don’t change their nature.

Susan Pearce is another writer who urges us to understand what we collect because they bring us closer to self knowledge; they are our other selves. (And I should like to add, with some beautiful books, infinitely our better selves). Stewart says collecting offers the fantasy — through the process of bibliophilic activity (arranging and rearranging a shelf display, pursuing absent books, trying to complete a collection) you are a producer more than a consumer of objects. Yes, I can see that, and also the aspect of being able to fashion and control your environment. For book scholar Thomas Tanselle ‘a feeling for mastery’ is at the heart of collecting.   

The most transcendent explanation that Windorf takes us to is the one offered by Philip Blom, author of An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, that the collector’s devotion infuses life into these dead objects, forming a bridge “between our limited world and an infinitely richer one, that of history or art, of charisma or of holiness”, a world, he concludes, “of ultimate authenticity and thus a profoundly romantic utopia.” While granting the views of Baudrillard and other theorists who see collecting as a ‘glorious, if illusory, gratification’, Wendorf counters their arguments with his own, and it is his reading that I lean most closely to and can embrace.

He notes that there is a richer, many sided texture to book collecting than allowed by the theorists who don’t fully explore the complex relationship between things and owners. That collecting is based on ‘desire, curiosity, knowledge, observation, patience and pursuit’. It is a way of finding oneself. Wendorf writes: “I see personal collecting in particular as part of the complicated project of self-projection: self fashioning, and self fulfillment.”

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 9:25:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/pradeep-sebastian-on-the-literature-of-collecting/article7823074.ece

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