I’ll be moderating a panel about book collecting this weekend. The preparation has led me to consider my own book collecting habit, and I wonder if I’m expressing attention deficit disorder in that area of my life. It all began when I decided to collect William Faulkner, but as you can imagine, first editions of his books are pricey, so I took the tack of “what I can afford” Faulkner. That means I own a first edition of The Sound and the Fury in spanish, published in Buenos Aires. At least, I think it’s a first. I stopped collecting Faulkner and began collecting Katherine Anne Porter for a while, and then Thomas Pynchon and Shirley Jackson. Oh, and Louis Bromfield, William Styron, Andre Dubus and James Salter. There are also first edition paperbacks of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels on my bookshelves as well as my Perry Mason collection.
I envy “completists,” who focus on one author or idea, because I think they’ll end up with collections worthy of a library installation or a great sum of money. A few years ago, I was on a bus with collectors touring libraries in Washington D.C. Everyone introduced themselves and what they collect. Their answers were so very neat and tidy. The journals of Arctic explorers. Miniature Bibles. Books published by Thomas B. Mosher. Alphabet books for children pre-20th Century. My thoughts scurried about as to what I could say. “I seem to like everything” didn’t sound very sophisticated. Someone before me said he collected modern firsts, so I used that. It was close enough. Nobody needed to know about my erratic collecting of bird books.
Here’s something else. I find myself buying the odd one-offs. Books that fit nowhere into any of my collections. Like, The Second Funeral of Napoleon in Three Letters to Miss Smith of London and The Chronicle of the Drum published in 1841. William Makepeace Thackeray penned it using Michael Angelo Titmarch as his nom-de-plum. Then there’s this $75 paperback, WeeGee’s Naked City. What attracted me was the blurb on the cover: “Weegee photographs that O. Henry might have done if he had worked with a camera.”
Obviously, I don’t complete, I don’t focus and I can’t afford the top ticket items that would make my collections worthy of a bus announcement, but book collecting is a thrill for me. Everything — from the search to the surprise-find, from roadtrips to attend book festivals to borrowing from the house maintenance budget to pay for a must-have — figures into that thrill. And I’ve learned along the way, something I hope the panel communicates to our audience, there are all kinds of ways to collect, and all kinds of collections. Neatly packaged and defined is not a requirement.
This post was updated 10.17.10 with improved images of the books.