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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 comaraderie, 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
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
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.