“Hey, it hardly matters how I got started on this project. Man starts
collecting stamps, pasting them in a book, lives in an attic on peanut-butter
sandwiches, puts every dime he can into his stamp collection, are you gonna ask
him what got him started collecting in the first place? He’s a stamp collector.
It’s what he does.”
Lawrence Bloch. A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN.
April 2001, a Greek court sentenced fourteen British and Dutch men and women to
prison terms from three years to six years on charges of espionage, after a
policeman at an Athens
air show noted them taking down the identification numbers of Greek Air Force
planes and diagramming flight manoeuvres. The year before, Tom Hart-Dyke was
held for nine months by Colombia
guerrillas who found him prowling their rain forest. And in Reno, Nevada,
Robert Bailey was jailed for twelve years in 2002 after barricading himself in
a comic book store and threatening to set off a homemade bomb.
None of these
people were spies or criminals. They were members of that particularly brazen
breed of modern adventurers, the collectors. Hart-Dyke’s passion is rare
orchids. Once the guerillas released him, he headed straight for another of the
world’s most inhospitable areas, the jungles of Papua/New Guinea. Bailey was a
comic-book fancier whose $100,000 collection was stolen in 2000. He accused a local
store of selling some of the stolen comic books. "He's not a predator on
society," his lawyer explained. "He's a man who went mad, who spent
his whole life collecting comic books and they were taken away from him."
Fourteen were plane spotters, part of the fraternity that travels the world for
the pleasure of standing at the windy margins of airports, taking down the
registration numbers of the planes that roar overhead. This successor to train
spotting is now a world-wide hobby. The Renaissance Hotel at London’s Heathrow offers a "Plane
Spotter Break" weekend special, which guarantees an unobstructed runway
view. In 2001, it booked more than 350 rooms at $135 per night. The sales
pitch: "The only thing we overlook is the airport."
collecting obsession goes back to the early fifties when, as a twitchy and
socially inept eleven-year-old, I forked over three shillings and sixpence in
Australian currency in the newspaper shop of the small country town of Junee
Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke.
Today, I live
in Paris, and
need a separate double garage to house my
ten thousand books, mostly first editions, many of them unique. From my
desk, I can see first editions of F.
Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and
Tender is the Night, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and
Black Spring, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the latter containing
a letter from Burgess explaining a fine point of the Russian-based slang nadsat
he invented for it.
A first edition
of James Agee’s Depression epic Let Us
Now Praise Famous Men, illustrated with bleak photographs of sharecropper
families by Walker Evans, contains, as well as Agee’s spidery and extremely
rare signature, a pencilled draft of a letter
begging his landlord for a few more weeks to pay his rent.
poor penmanship seems to go with literary ability. A biography of Edgar Allan
Poe is scrawled with spidery marginalia by Graham Greene, who’d been sent it to
review. On a business card tucked into the first edition of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
informs an admirer in an almost illegible scribble, “I regret I have nothing to
say about anything.”
a collection can read its owner’s evolving personality as unerringly as a
dendrologist can follow a tree’s growth from its rings. When Spike Jonze made the film Adaptation, set in the world of orchid
collecting, British critic Philip French described its real-life
inspiration, John Laroche, as “an eccentric,
low-life autodidact…who has gone from one obsession to another, the latest
Laroche’s fan website, epitaph to one of his former
enthusiasms, is called simply “Done With Fish”. Mine could read “Done With SF” or “Done With Film”, since
one set of shelves holds the remnants of a broad collection of reference books
on the cinema, while another, equally the relic of an earlier obsession, is
filled with science fiction. First
editions of Wells’s The Invisible Man and
The War in the Air share shelf space
with the sky-blue art deco cover of Huxley’s Brave New World, the more sober brown cloth of Richard Jeffries’ Wild England, or After London, and
the flimsy paper-bound booklet that is the first printing of Robert
Louis Stevenson’s The Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Inscribed books by Ursula LeGuin, Anne
McCaffrey, Arthur Clarke, James Blish, A.E. Van Vogt and Robert Bloch
recall meetings – some pleasant, a few
otherwise - in Italy, California, Britain, Australia. Ray Bradbury’s scrawled
dedications appear in many of my books, including his first (“this rare
copy of Dark Carnival”) and a
pristine copy of Fahrenheit 451, with
its firehouse-red cover of a burning man, drawn
by Joe Mugnaini. And In a first
edition of Crash, a letter from J.G. Ballard asks his Danish translator to
send him some “motor car pornography”, explaining “this is very important to
me.” He goes on, “What I need is not so
much the kinky material as straightforward ‘middle-aged business man makes his
sexy Nordic secretary in the back seat of the Mercedes’, ‘young couple can’t
get a hotel room on their honeymoon night’ etc.”
In part because
I now live in the building where Sylvia Beach and her lover Adrienne Monnier
shared an apartment before and during World War II when they ran the twin
bookshops of Shakespeare and Company and Le Maison des Amis des Livres, I
mainly collect books by those expatriate Americans who, in varying degrees of
penury, wrote and published in
Paris during what the French call les annees folles – the crazy years -
between 1918 and 1939. By rights, Paris should be the place to look for such
books, but ironically, since most were often erotic or experimental in
content, produced in minuscule
quantities, and aimed at wealthy foreign collectors, the bulk have settled in
either England or the United States.
I've long since given up trying to explain or
understand my collecting. It’s enough that it brings me into contact with those writers of
the present that I like, and keeps me connected with those of the past I admire.
The French, who understand obsession, don’t have a word for hobby. The closest
is the phrase violon d’Ingres – Ingres’s
violin. (The painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) was an
accomplished violinist and composer, as proud of his music as of his art.)
Every visit to a collector's house must include , as the price of the meal, a display of recently acquired treasures. So I make no apologies for detailing the following, the latest additions to my collection. Enjoy! Or, if you can't enjoy, endure.