Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Seven Stages of Book Collecting

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying Swiss-German psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed the celebrated "five stages of grief":
  1. denial
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance
(I should perhaps add that the Wikipedia entry on the subject adds - in what seems to me an unnecessarily pompous manner - that:
Although commonly referenced in popular culture, studies have not empirically demonstrated the existence of these stages, and the model is considered to be outdated, inaccurate, and unhelpful in explaining the grieving process.)

Ken Ross: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004)

Be that as it may, I've decided to follow her example, in a somewhat more humble fashion, by introducing the John Mackenzie Ross "seven stages of book collecting" model. Here it is:
  1. Buy the book
  2. Shelve it
  3. Cover it
  4. Catalogue it
  5. Research it
  6. Read it
  7. Write about it
Naturally, each of these stages may require further exposition. I've more than once been greeted with blank incomprehension when mentioning some (to me) routine aspect of collecting which turned out to be far less self-explanatory than I'd anticipated.

Bronwyn Lloyd: Jack's Arabian Nights Bookcase (30/7/21)

Take, for example, my online interview with novelist Jaspreet Singh on the subject of my 1001 Nights book collection. "When exactly did you start seeing your growing collection as a separate bookshelf?" was one of his questions, and yet to me appropriate display is an obvious outgrowth of the collecting bug.

Jack Ross: A Gentle Madness (2009- )

Similarly, one of my ex-students posted the following set of queries on my Book collection blog, A Gentle Madness (prefacing them with the possibly accurate comment, "Captain Jack, you've gone quite mad, but I guess you must have always been this way!"):

  1. Did you one day realise you had the makings of a "collection" or was it your intention to "collect"?

  2. What book started your collection (when it first became a collection or when you first realised it)?

  3. Do you read every book you buy?

  4. How do you decide what books to buy? Must they be your personal favourites? Are there boxes you need to tick before a book can be allowed into the collection?

  5. Would you ever allow Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown in your collection?

These are all good questions, I guess, but they proved surprisingly difficult to answer. I'll leave you to see what kind of a fist I made of that by directing you to the original post here.

    The Booksellers (2019)

  1. Buy the book

  2. The thrill of the chase is probably the most familiar aspect of collecting even to people who don't share this passion themselves. How else account for the immense popularity of such reality TV series as American Pickers or Pawn Stars?

    I wrote a post about the Lost Bookshops of Auckland some years ago now, where I tried to convey some of my own nostalgia for the second-hand and antiquarian bookshops which once dotted the city.

    Something of the same spirit is conveyed in the recent documentary The Booksellers, which takes us into the inner sanctum of some of New York's most celebrated bookstores.

    Now, of course, the game has changed utterly, thanks to the immense convenience and practicality of online purchasing from the likes of or AbeBooks. This, too, is not without its risks and excitements, but it is a somewhat domesticated version of the sport. It's hard to imagine any serious present-day collectors ignoring it when it comes to filling significant gaps in their collections, though.

    Mike Wolfe, Danielle Colby-Cushman & Frank Fritz: American Pickers (2010- )

    Bronwyn Lloyd: "Before" (2019)

  3. Shelve it

  4. No matter how much shelf space you have, you will fill it eventually. Accordingly, as you'll gather from the "After" picture below, I've had to resort to stowing away my books in double rows.

    This is certainly not an ideal way to present them. I've taken to putting one book by some particularly prolific author in the front row, and shelving all the rest of that person's books behind. That way you can deduce with a reasonable amount of certainty what is likely to be there - if you have some idea of the scope of the collection in the first place, that is.

    I am not myself a fan of bookcases which graduate the height of the shelves so as to allow for bigger books in one, standard hardbacks in another, and even smaller ones (such as paperbacks) in another. Authors are seldom so obliging as to make all of their books the same size, so one ends up having to run parallel alphabetical rows of books on different levels to accommodate any one writer. Which can be very confusing to outsiders trying to find a specific book.

    After considerable research, I've come up with the following rough ratio for the ideal bookcase (for my own requirements, that is). All shelves should have exactly the same dimensions, except for the top one, which should be open on top so as to accommodate exceptionally large books. Each shelf should be roughly 280 mm. [= c.11 inches] deep, by 280 mm. high. That is tall enough for most books, and also provides ample room for two rows of normal sized volumes. I'd recommend including at least seven shelves, which would add up to a height of 2 metres [= c. 6 feet], with a breadth of at least a metre - or even a metre and a half [= 3-4 feet].

    In other words:
    180 mm. deep x
    180 mm. high

    1000 mm. tall x
    500-750 mm. wide
    Aby Warburg saw his own book collection (now housed in the Warburg Institute in London) as a dynamic way of connecting otherwise disparate disciplines. Merely by shelving the books a certain way:
    the library revealed the similarities which existed among each of the investigative approaches pertaining to these disciplines and promoted the insight that multiple problems cannot be solved by considering each of them in isolation.
    I can make no such lofty claims for my own assortment of disparate titles, but it's true that they do encourage such juxtapositions by the very fact of their coexistence in the same space.

    Bronwyn Lloyd: "After" (2019)

    Model Ship World: Covering Dustjackets (2013)

  5. Cover it

  6. For years I've been trying to protect at least a few of my books with plastic covers, but it wasn't until I managed to locate a reliable source of mylar plastic rolls in the past couple of years that I've been able to do this more systematically.

    At first it was only hardbacks with dustjackets which received this treatment, but more recently I've taken to covering all the hardbacks, as well as a few of the more vulnerable paperbacks. I make an exception for books in slipcases, as they seem to be quite sufficiently protected already.

    Damp air and direct sunlight are the two main enemies of books. The first promotes mould and foxing, the second fades brightly covered spines. Of the two, I prefer sunlight, as I'd rather have a faded dry book than a colourful damp one. Best of all, of course, is a temperature controlled environment (a dehumidifier will help you with this) in a room with appropriately placed curtains.

    I am, finally, far more interested in what's inside a book than its outside appearance, but there isn't much point in spending a lot of money on acquiring nice things if you don't take care of them once you have them.

    Ubiquitous Books: Mylar Covers for Books (2019)

    A Gentle Madness (2009- )

  7. Catalogue it

  8. This is a major part of my collecting endeavour. I catalogue each new book I acquire both by category and by location.

    "Mr. Humphries and His Inheritance" is probably my favourite M. R. James story of all time. In it, James relegates his usual ghostly shenanigans to the background even more than usual, since it mostly concerns a bookish young man who's just inherited an old house with a wonderful maze - as well as a library of mostly unexamined treasures - from a distant relative.

    "The drawing up of a catalogue raisonné would be a delicious occupation for winter," is probably the one line from this story which has influenced me most over the years. Yes it would be a "delicious activity" - and it is. Cataloguing can become a chore like any other, but when it's done for pleasure, the possibilities of online book catalogues are as yet in their infancy, I firmly believe.

    Besides the principal functions mentioned above, my own book collection website, A Gentle Madness, includes complete listings of the books of favourite authors of mine so that I know what I still need to be be on the lookout for. It also includes a category of posts about recent acquisitions to my library.

    Further refinements will no doubt follow. Hopefully they'll be reasonably easy to institute, now that most of the essential data is in place.

    Jack Ross: A Gentle Madness: Acquisitions (2012- )

  9. Research it

  10. I suppose, since I have spent thirty years working as a teacher at tertiary level - and ten years as a university student before that - I should know a little bit about this subject.

    What's more, I date from an era when dissertations where painstakingly tapped out on typewriters, and when access to a bank of encyclopedias and dictionaries was necessary to provide the necessary facts for literary research.

    The horrid truth, though, is that I have a tendency to make my first stop Wikipedia just like most of my students do. And why not? Many of the entries are flawed and incomplete, admittedly, but then so were most of the reference sources I had access to in the university library. The advantage with an online encyclopedia is that one can click on the links to supplement the basic information included there.

    It will certainly provide you with what you need to know about the contents (and authors) of most of the books in an average library. Beyond that, admittedly, more specialised techniques may have to be employed - but that's another story (as Rudyard Kipling was probably not the first to say).

    Wikipedia (2001- )

    Eve Arnold: Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce (1955)

  11. Read it

  12. "Have you read them all?"

    This is probably the book collecting equivalent of that infamous question for writers: "Where do you get your ideas?"

    No, of course I haven't read all of them. Nor would I really relish looking round at a group of books every one of which I'd already read. "La chair est triste, hélas ! et j'ai lu tous les livres," as Stéphane Mallarmé once put it: "The flesh is sad, alas, and I've read all the books."

    I have read a pretty sizeable percentage of them, though, some several times, and am gradually working my way through the others. Interestingly enough, not all book collectors actually do this. There are even some library collections which boast of including only uncut copies, unread and never-to-be-seen by any human eye.

    That's all very well, but my collection exists for use, not ornament. There are a few books which are kind of old and delicate, and those I might choose to read in a library copy instead, but most of them I read regardless of any risk to their spines or their ancient acidic paper. It is, after all, a large part of my job, as well as my leisure (though generally somewhat different books are involved).

    I am, one might say, a reading machine - by necessity as well as inclination.

    Bronwyn Lloyd: Reading at Paekakariki (2013)

    Jack Ross: The Imaginary Museum (2006- )

  13. Write about it

  14. Writing about the books you've bought and read is really the icing on the cake. Ever since I first started this blog in 2006, it's been moving more and more towards an exclusive focus on book collecting. Hence this post, among many others along the same lines, and hence the various series of author or series-focussed blogposts I've composed to date.

    Books, after all, are fascinatingly various objects. They have a physical presence as well as existing on a more ideal or abstract plane. The object interests me as much as its content, in most cases. They can be old or new, big or small, beautifully bound and packaged or scruffily mass-produced.

    But I suppose that the main point of collecting them is to connect with them in some way: either by suggesting new ideas or refinements of ideas in you, or just delighting you with "the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to life beyond life" (Milton).

So that's a little taste of the background to my madness. What about yours?

I suppose that the word "hobbyist" might be applied to what I do here by some tetchy critics in place of the rather more grandiose term "collector." But a collection is nothing but a hobby with a college education (to paraphrase Mark Twain), so yar boo sucks to them!


Richard said...

I love that image of the Edinburgh library. The books behind the columns. It might seem unlikely but one of the most beautifully designed libraries in Auckland is the Glenn Innes library. It allows a lot of light into it. It is not as large as the Takapuna and the Panmure library but if you want to experience great architecture go there en passant some time.

I'm glad of your Fine Madness Jack -- I know that is a book, I suppose I should check if it's a film or where the term came from.

When I met Ron Riddell or a few years later I became involved in book selling also and saw "both sides" of books. But books about books often connect to philosophy as indeed it is a philosophic problem which e.g. .... in the 'Library at Night' discusses. Your ref. to Warburg interested me. Warburg's original system is interesting but I need some kind of alphabetical and or classification system. I should put more labels on. I "lose" books all the time. One or two I have had to buy again.

I also like to have beside my bed among other books: An Oxford Encylopedic dictionary (I have two but also an illustrated on also); an Architectural dict. (Oxf.); a massively thumbed Chambers Biographical ref; Crossword books; a Spanish, two Latin, French (my mothers when she went to Brisbane for school); Italian, German, Ox. Philosophy, Architecture, and an old series of books on European and other literatures. A single vol of Spenser-Smiths's book on modern writers; Le Bon Mot (Latin, French and other sayings and terms); a Maths Dict. (Oxfd.) short and a long Thesaurus; a large History dictionary; atlases; an Oxfd. Mythology dict.; Eaton's maths (and science) tables with extra formulae; a science dict; a book on cell biology, a book on anatomy and physiology, (other things similar); note books of various kinds; books I am reading.

I read in bed, and -- I know it's wrong -- write my drafts in bed and take notes in various note books of things I am reading and so on. My daughter's cat died in 2006 -- it had become mine by then and I was upset but you know how cats take over.

In my room where my computer is the cat would ensconce on a chair. I was cunning. Knowing the imperial power of cats and women I would reverentially and with much bowing, scraping and apologeticalism, I would slowly slide the cat burdened chair back, allowing me to move another chair to be placed in front so I could use the computer. The cat let me do this on the condition I did this deferentially and allowed it sufficient dignity.

The cat took some interest in my books but by and large held humans in some contempt, unless I am mistaken....!

All the best Jack

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

Your comments about bedside books is very interesting -- I, too, have devoted huge amounts of time to worrying about precisely which books I need to have to hand at all times (somehow it tends to come down to how many I can fit into whatever shelf-like apparatus I can fit in beside the bed).

I see you have lots of dictionaries and reference books. I found that in practice I was too lazy to consult them except in working hours, so have been moving more towards anthologies of interesting poems and stories (such as de la Mare's Come Hither, or books of ghost stories). I also like books which one can open anywhere and just start reading: The Anatomy of Melancholy, or The Oxford Companion to English Literature ...

I like the picture you paint of doing obeisance to the great cat in order to be granted access to your computer desk. Zero, too, is very fond of my computer chair, which has just the right slope to allow her to curl up. We've compromised by moving in her own armchair, which has to be set up each morning before she will deign to sleep in it.

best, jack

Dr Jack Ross said...

Or, rather, 'your comments *are* very interesting' - I really should proofread a bit more carefully ...