University of Virginia Library


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A Rationale of Collecting

Collecting, in one form or another, is so ubiquitous, so much a part of humanity's experience, that it has aroused endless speculation regarding its origins, its motives, its essential nature. There are debates about whether it is instinctive or acquired, about whether it is a rational activity or a mental disease ("mania" being one of the terms often applied to it, sometimes with affection, sometimes not). Most such discussions illuminate some aspect of the subject, but even in their totality they do not encompass all the causes and all the results of collecting. Like every human behavior, collecting is complex enough that there is always something more to be said about it. The attempt to understand collecting not only adds to our knowledge of human nature but also enhances the experience of collecting itself. For whether one collects Renaissance paintings or cigar boxes, Greek antiquities or coffee mugs, rare books or advertising brochures, one's sense of self-awareness is increased by being able to place one's own endeavors in a framework that comprehends the full panoply of related pursuits.


To think about collecting in this inclusive way requires, I believe, a definition that makes everyone a collector. I would say, simply, that collecting is the accumulation of tangible things. This definition covers the assembling of natural objects (like fossils and shells) and living entities (like plants and animals) as well as artifacts, the products of humanity; and it leaves open the manner in which the things are acquired, the mental processes leading to their acquisition, and the length of time they are held. Some would object that a definition under which everyone is a collector has insufficient precision to be useful for analysis. I would argue, on the contrary, that only by linking all forms of collecting can we illuminate the fundamental nature of the myriad directions it can take. The kinds of accumulating we are most likely to think of when we


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hear the word "collecting" are not separated by distinct lines from other types of gathering, and recognition of these relationships helps to clarify them all.

There is, for example, the matter of need. Some might feel that the concept of collecting must involve accumulations that are in excess of what is needed for survival—or, put another way, gatherings that serve no strictly utilitarian function. Collecting, so the argument runs, is a vestige of the instinct for foraging and hoarding found in animals and primitive peoples; when the "need" no longer exists, the hunting and gathering continue anyway and become attached to different classes of objects, now not connected with shelter or bodily nourishment. But such an argument, ignoring the reality of emotional demands, begs the question of what constitutes "need," which is never easy to answer. Even animals' hoarding does not always seem to be realistically related to the necessities of maintaining life;[1] and prehistoric human beings are now thought to have admired and saved certain tools for aesthetic reasons.[2] When one tries to identify human needs, one is bound to hear, in the back of one's mind, Lear's "Oh, reason not the need": the possessions not strictly necessary for bodily survival nevertheless may seem required for establishing a sense of human identity and defining one's place in the world. Nomadic tribes and homeless street-people have their possessions; and those persons or families who lose their accumulated store of objects through fires, storms, robberies, and other catastrophes generally find that their feelings of good fortune in still being alive are naggingly tempered by their sense of deprivation, since they are not as fully alive without the objects that they had made part of their existence. Lord Eccles, in On Collecting (1968), observes, "During the blitz on London I saw how simple and profound was the passion for things of one's own. The morning after poor people had been bombed out, they grieved far less for the house or rooms where they had been living than for their things, . . . the things their mother had left them, or their children had given them. The bomb which destroyed their things destroyed part of themselves" (p. 4).[3] It is unwise, then, to complicate a definition of collecting with the idea of need—not only because need is so difficult to pin down but also, and more significantly,


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because all forms of amassing objects can in fact be necessities of life, if the role of emotional well-being in physical survival is adequately taken into account. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to claim, as I hope to show, that the possession of objects is for everyone an essential element of life-support.

Another objection that might be raised against the simplicity of my definition is that it does not distinguish random accumulations of objects from purposeful selections. Surely, some will feel, the term "collection" should be reserved for those assemblages that have been systematically built according to a unifying principle and should not be used to dignify the miscellaneous stock of possessions (or even one class of them) that grows up around individuals year by year. It is, in fact, quite conventional to think of "collections" as different from "accumulations," but it is not very satisfactory,[4] because it skirts the question of how, or by whom, the coherence of a "collection" is to be determined. What one person accumulates haphazardly, another will regard as bearing a design; and even the product of a careful plan may turn out to be of interest to another person for an entirely different pattern that can be read into it. In any case, all accumulations are actually selections, and therefore imbued with meaning through that selectivity. Every object that is taken in, that is given entrance to one's house, or room, or personal space, acquires thereby a significance and alters the relationship of everything else within that domain; and every such object is a selection from the vast universe of objects. Some objects, of course, arrive unbidden, but if they are retained (even through inertia, and only temporarily) they are still revealing. Every accumulation, whatever additional significance it may be found to possess, has the unity that comes from its telling something about a human being who lived in a particular time and place. Archivists regularly deal with residues, and they have been wise to recognize that found arrangements of personal papers, in archeological layers that can seem random, carry meaning that is worth paying attention to. Clearly one may wish to distinguish different types of individuals and to separate those who deliberately pursue their own ideas of coherent groupings from those who give no conscious thought to why their possessions are multiplying as they are; but this discrimination will be richer if it is based on an acknowledgment that both types of persons are related, that they are overlapping varieties of "collectors."


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Still another element of my definition that must logically be dealt with is its limitation to "tangible things." If one is going to take a comprehensive view of collecting, as I am doing, can one not speak of collecting ideas and other intangibles as well as physical entities? The word "collect" can of course be used this way, and regularly is, as when people speak of collecting Caribbean cruises, or performances by Gielgud, or any other experiences—in the same way that Thoreau felt he could own something without taking physical possession of it. Every mindset (in which one "collects one's thoughts") consists of an ever-developing collection of mental routines. Everyone has this kind of collection as well as a collection of physical objects; and there is inevitably a reciprocal relationship between the two, since the mindset (or "temperament") determines which objects one allows to accumulate around one, and the environment created by those objects in turn influences the mindset. But there is a fundamental difference between thoughts and objects, between an internal repertoire of ideas and an external grouping of tangible materials; and this dividing line is more profound than any that may be formulated to separate one kind of assemblage of physical objects from another. (This point can be held even if one wishes to question the existence of the external world, for there is still a distinction between what seems, to any given individual, to come from within and what seems to enter one's consciousness from without.) It appears reasonable, therefore, to exclude mental repertoires from our present definition of a collection but not to eliminate any form of tangible accumulation.[5] Even so, the former remains relevant to the discussion because the latter cannot be thoughtfully considered without recognizing its source in the need of the individual to bridge the gap, to bring what is (or seems) external within one's personal orbit.

Werner Muensterberger, in Collecting: An Unruly Passion (1994), works from a somewhat more explicit definition than mine: collecting, he says, is "the selecting, gathering, and keeping of objects of subjective value" (p. 4). Although this definition is careful and useful, my reason for preferring an even simpler one—"the accumulation of tangible things"—is that, in my view, most of the words he uses may be inappropriately restrictive unless they are accompanied by particular explications (and definitions ought to be capable of standing alone). The idea of "selecting," for instance, may seem to imply a conscious and deliberate activity; but all collecting, as Muensterberger well knows (for


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his subtitle is "Some Psychological Perspectives"), involves a mixture of conscious and unconscious motivations. Deliberate selections have unconscious causes, and random accumulations are nonetheless selective. Collections may no doubt be classified according to the amount of conscious control they seem to reflect, but the differences among them are matters of degree; and the attempt to understand the nature of collecting must deal with these shifting proportions.

Similarly, to speak of "keeping" a group of things involves permanence, but the length of time one possesses something cannot be an element in determining whether or not one is a collector. The urge to possess must indeed be present, but once possession actually occurs, its longevity is not an essential factor: some people—at all levels of sophistication and deliberateness in their acts of gathering—willingly dispose of their assemblages and start on others; such assemblages, just as much as those held for a lifetime, are surely to be included within the concept of a "collection." And the word "objects" is likely to suggest inanimate entities, yet those who assemble varieties of orchids or breeds of horses must be encompassed by the definition, for they cannot be distinguished, in their motivations or behavior, from those who collect inanimate things.[6] Finally, Muensterberger's reference to "subjective value" is meant to make the point that the desirability of an object to a collector is independent of the market price it would fetch (now or in the future). But why should those who collect for investment (at least in part) or take some pride in the monetary value of what they possess be denied a place in the universe of collecting? If such motives enter (in one degree or another) into a person's gathering of objects, they are simply a part of the total


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psychological underpinning of the assemblage, and they do not affect the more fundamental question of why the various motivations involved led to the particular items present, or to tangible things at all. I make these points not to criticize Muensterberger (for his definition is more thoughtful than many that have been advanced) but to illuminate some of the considerations involved in thinking about collecting.

Muensterberger's book, indeed, may be the most thorough and engaging treatment of the psychology of collecting written for a general audience. (Psychologists have naturally been intrigued by the phenomenon of collecting, for it clearly results from deep emotional drives, and there is an extensive technical literature: the modern tradition of such psychological inquiry goes back to Freud and, perhaps less obviously, to William James—who brought up the subject repeatedly, as in the influential 1892 "Briefer Course" of his Psychology where he treated the collecting of "property" as an instinctive impulse" and the resulting collections as "parts of our empirical selves.")[7] If one wishes to think seriously about the nature of collecting, one has no choice but to ponder human psychology, for collecting often causes people to seem driven by uncontrollable urges that they cannot rationally explain—a fact that has made collecting of interest to a number of novelists, such as, most famously, Balzac (Cousin Pons) and, among more recent writers, John Fowles (The Collector), Evan S. Connell, Jr. (The Connoisseur), and Bruce Chatwin (Utz). Muensterberger, a practicing psychoanalyst himself, sees the origins of collecting in childhood traumas. When infants or children have the experience of feeling deprived (even for a short period) of the protection and support of those close to them, they tend to look for relief in their immediate inanimate surroundings and find in controllable physical objects the solace they require. The situation illustrates, in Muensterberger's neat phrase, "the interlocking of biological needs and environmental conditions" (p. 19). Children find in objects a means to keep anxiety under control, and thus they become emotionally attached to one or more items that are associated in their minds with the relief of frustration and mental distress. The holding of these objects, the act of demonstrating that one possesses and controls them, is a pleasurable experience, and one that is repeatedly satisfying because it creates "the illusion of being able to cope" (p. 29).


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Muensterberger's discussion, however one feels about Freudian, or Freud-inspired, or post-Freudian interpretations of human behavior, does go deeper into the psychology of collecting than many of the writings on the subject. Philippe Jullian's Les Collectioneurs (1966), for example, though it is in some ways a charming book, remains relatively superficial. At one point he says (in the words of his 1967 translator, Michael Callum), "Every collection is inspired by the same basic factors: fear of boredom, desire for immortality, aesthetic sensibility, vanity, speculation" (p. 74). Similarly, Holbrook Jackson, in The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930-31) offers—under the heading "The Causes of Bibliomania"—sections on "Greed," "Vanity," and "Fashion" (II, 273-289). All these motivations may certainly be involved, in varying proportions, in every individual's collecting, but identifying them does not explain why collecting is the route taken to those ends. There are other ways of passing the time, or securing fame, or satisfying a love of beauty, or feeding one's self-importance, or taking financial risks, or amassing wealth, or following fashion; and the most fundamental question in trying to understand collecting is to ask why it should be the path, rather than some other, that is chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to reach certain personal goals. One may subsequently turn to defining the particular combinations of goals that characterize individual collectors; but such analysis does not reach the deepest levels of the drive to collect. Thus an inquiry like Muensterberger's, which tries to identify the mental processes underlying the more overt motivations, is taking an important step, even if it does not tell the whole story.

That there is more to be said is suggested by Walter Benjamin's characteristically perceptive—but disappointingly elliptical—essay, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting" (available in Harry Zohn's 1968 English translation in Illuminations). One of Benjamin's most penetrating observations is framed as a question: "For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?" (p. 60). The pleasures of the chase and of adding to one's assemblage are framed by Benjamin in the same terms: "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." The boundaries of a collection enclose a "magic" space because any object, once "fixed" within it, becomes part of a created order. Benjamin recognizes that collectors deal with "a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order," but he does not go much beyond these few sentences in exploring the point. Whether, if asked to expand his discussion, he would have taken the direction I shall take here is impossible to say; but


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I do believe that the human need to find order should be thought about as a fundamental—and possibly the most fundamental—explanation of collecting.

I wish to emphasize, however, that this style of explanation is in no way incompatible with psychoanalytical analyses like Muensterberger's. He talks about the individual's need to feel in "control," and such a feeling could also be described as the perception of some degree of order and stability in what previously seemed unyieldingly chaotic. When infants reach out and take charge of objects, they are comforted because they have domesticated what had seemed foreign; by taking physical control of something, they have imposed an order on their relationship to it and thus have made one small part of their environment less mystifying and disorienting. Whether infants require such comfort because of experiences that make them feel abandoned and insecure, or simply because the world around them seems curious or bewildering, can be forever debated. I believe it can be plausibly argued that, even without specific traumas, infants feel the need to bring order to their surroundings through the acquisition of objects, thus setting in motion a lifelong pattern. This hypothesis is not necessarily more universal than Muensterberger's; for if he is right that everyone experiences childhood traumas, then his explanation is also universally applicable. But an hypothesis not dependent on any one category of event (such as a trauma) may perhaps be regarded as more basic.


The starting point for thinking about collecting is recognizing the human feeling of wonder that things seem to exist outside the self—the amazement and curiosity aroused by the apparent infinitude of animate and inanimate things that constantly impinge on one's consciousness. And the wonder is not only that these things have an independent existence but also that they seem to have had a pre-existence—that is, to have a history that antedates our awareness of them. The act of reaching out and touching them therefore produces contact both with the environment and with the past. Obviously infants do not consciously have such thoughts, and neither do a great many adults. But philosophers systematically consider the relation of the self to the nonself, and many other people think, and sometimes write, about it in less organized ways. In one fashion or another, at some level of the mind, everyone responds to the puzzle of whether the self is, or can be, connected to what seems to be outside it. The infant grasping and tightly holding a teddy bear, the expert


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in Old Master drawings pursuing and capturing another example for a collection, and all other acquisitors of tangible things are proving to themselves that they can make physical contact with that outside realm and, by seizing something from it, can subjugate one small part of it and to that extent render it more controllable and orderly. The process gives pleasure by conveying the sense that one is in some measure mastering one's environment, that one is less disoriented in the face of confusion. There is an accompanying and insatiable need to repeat the process, both because one seeks continued reassurance and because each instance brings renewed pleasure.

This process can be analyzed into several components, which include creation of order, fascination with chance, curiosity about the past, and desire for understanding. A sense of order is produced by the act of acquiring a tangible thing because that thing has been removed from one context, immense and inexplicable, and set within a different one, familiar and manageable. Each acquisition takes its place in relation to the other items already present within this context. Susan Stewart concisely captures this point in On Longing (1984) when she says that "objects are naturalized into the landscape of the collection" (p. 156). All the relationships among the items may shift somewhat as a result, but the new arrival is not an alien: since the whole is conceptually graspable, the newcomer fits simply by virtue of being there (whereas in the outside world, being there is not enough, for just what an item is fitting into—if it is doing so at all—is not clear). I take it that Benjamin's reference to "the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed" is his way of making the same point. Another perceptive writer on collecting, Stephen Jay Gould, uses a similar expression in his absorbing study of eight collectors of fossils (Finders, Keepers, 1992, with photographs by Rosamond Wolff Purcell): he speaks of the urge "to bring part of a limitless diversity into an orbit of personal or public appreciation" (p. 10).[8] The "magic circle," the "orbit," imposes a structure on what is placed within it, and the individual repeatedly finds ways of moving more and more things from the outside to the inside of that space, gaining satisfaction each time from the sense of taming another talisman of wildness.

This drive to create order coexists with a fascination for chance. These two are natural partners because the gathering of tangible things entails a constant engagement with contingency, and one is inevitably


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dazzled by the diverse succession of things that pass one's way. What one gathers is dependent on what one encounters, and one's active seeking is a way of trying to encounter more. But despite one's attempts to increase the odds of finding something, what one actually finds is still a matter of chance. The connection between collecting and gambling has often been made: both involve jousting with fate, an exhilarating activity because it makes one feel unusually engaged with a basic force of life. The desire to find out what will show up next impels the gambler to play one game after another untiringly and drives the collector, with unceasing eagerness, to proceed from one antique shop, or other likely source, to another. Chance fascinates us not only because it produces endless variety but also because we feel that there must be a way to tame it, to pluck from it some reassurances of order. The television program Antiques Roadshow, in which people bring their possessions to experts for evaluation, illustrates the randomness in the distribution of objects—and the fact that such randomness is a significant part of the interest the show holds for its participants and its viewers. A large portion of those who bring items for inspection would not consider themselves "collectors," and what they bring comes from the accumulations they live with, including the residues they have retained from previous generations. An amazement that these items now reside where they do is an unspoken emotion of the owners of the items and of the experts as well, just as for the viewers the miscellaneous succession of items has the same appeal as browsing in a shop, where one cannot predict what will turn up next.

A curiosity about the past is also part of the reason that people's attention is captured by this show, as by other parades of objects. Every object acquires an interest quite separate from whatever significance it may have held for its previous possessors, since it is a tangible survivor from an earlier moment, putting one in touch, literally, with a vanished time. Indeed, because an object was looked at and touched by people in the interval (however long or short) between its origin and the present, it provides a link not merely to one past moment but to a series of them. When one observes a tangible thing in this way, thinking of it as a survivor, one gives close attention to all its sensuous aspects, all its physical features, any of which may proclaim something of the origin and subsequent life of the item. This sort of scrutiny, though it may subsume some understanding of the original function of an item, focuses on as many observable details as possible, whether or not they have a bearing on that function. A pitcher is studied not merely as an efficient utilitarian object but also as a tangible thing of a particular shape, material, decoration, glaze, and so on. Items conveying verbal or musical texts, like books and sheet music, are examined not only for those texts and their graphic


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design but also for other physical elements that mark the objects as products of the workmanship of a given time (such as clues revealing the source and date of the paper or the printing and proofreading procedures followed in the printing shop). Even objects intended solely as visual displays, like paintings and the whole spectrum of objets d'art, can be seen as carrying two kinds of exhibitions (not entirely distinct): an aesthetic construct, in which such materials as paint or crystal or porcelain reflect the visions of creators and inspire various (similar or different) visions in observers; and a technical construct, in which the nature of the materials and their manipulation take center stage, regardless of the fact that many of the details thus examined were not intended to be noticed by observers. A sense of this concentration on objects as objects is what Benjamin captured in one of his most telling and eloquently succinct statements: that a collector "studies and loves" objects "as the scene, the stage, of their fate" (p. 60). The object itself tells the story of its life.

A desire for understanding is the natural next step that follows from curiosity. When one repeatedly investigates objects in the manner just described, one builds up an inventory of details that form the background against which additional objects are looked at, and in this way a body of knowledge develops.[9] A further fascination of Antiques Roadshow is the array of specialists called upon, which not only confirms the fact that no object is too arcane to fall within the expertise of someone but also implicitly teaches a valuable lesson—that all objects, however lowly, deserve to have experts studying them and to be taken seriously as part of the mosaic of the past. Possessing the requisite knowledge for placing an individual item in an historical setting and assessing its quality relative to other similar items is often called connoisseurship—which is simply a form of scholarship. People sometimes think of taste and judgment as the primary traits of a connoisseur, but those qualities must be integrated with solid learning, and that combination is essential for all sound scholarship.

The only way that "facts" become established is through taste and judgment (which could also be called sensitive and balanced evaluation) applied to evidence. The conclusions reached by this procedure stand as facts so long as qualified investigators are not able to find flaws in the arguments, or equally plausible alternatives, or incompatible new evidence: facts are hypotheses that have not been convincingly refuted. Collectors, in one degree or another, all engage in this process, the same one pursued by scientists, social scientists, and scholars of every kind,


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whose search for understanding is a search for order. Artists, too, in their own way, propose visions of order, just as we all do through our physical possessions. If one asks why some people become physicists, and others novelists, and others collectors, in their drive to find patterns, I would reply that the question is not properly phrased, since everyone is a collector. Why some become astronomers and others composers is indeed an interesting question, involving individual temperaments and experiences, but it is on a different level from a question about the sources of collecting. However else one tries to come to terms with the outside world, one assembles objects and lives among them in one's own created environment. Martin Conway put this matter memorably when he said that "upon most of us a necessity seems to be laid . . . to obtain possession of objects, not always beautiful, by which our lives thenceforward are conditioned, and our goings out and comings in suffer a daily fettered freedom" (The Sport of Collecting [1914], p. 8). Sometimes one's things are related to one's other efforts (as when an art historian collects paintings), and sometimes they are not. But the accumulating of things is always there, manifesting our fundamental search for understanding and illustrating its essential process, the continued attempt to form comprehensible constructions. We all create installations, whether we call ourselves visual artists or not.

The pursuit of understanding through objects has yet another dimension. Since tangible things have lives as well as origins, they take us back to a number of past times, not merely one.[10] Objects not only stimulate us to discover how they came to exist and what their original function was; they also tease us into probing their subsequent status and adventures. Whatever we can learn about how particular objects were regarded over time furthers our sense of understanding our environment by making us more fully aware of the history that every object embodies. We know the recent histories of our current possessions, having lived through various events with them; and we inevitably associate each item with particular successions of events, recollections of which are triggered by the sight, or the thought, of the object. People also know that their things played similar roles for previous possessors and that all other objects as well have survived unique series of events; the desire to learn these stories is an important manifestation of the need for the ordering power of knowledge.

The connections of collecting with narrative have been explored by


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a number of writers. Roger Cardinal opens his essay on Kurt Schwitters, which links collage-making and collecting, with an elegant expression of collecting as narrative: "In its sequential evolution, the collection encodes an intimate narrative, . . . the continuous thread through which selfhood is sewn into the unfolding fabric of a lifetime's experience."[11] This "intimate narrative" resembles the "narrative of interiority" (p. 158) described by Susan Stewart in "Objects of Desire," a chapter in her On Longing (1984). Although Stewart may overstate the extent to which such narratives function "to discredit the present" (p. 139), there is no doubt that she is right to speak of the "capacity of objects to serve as traces of . . . events whose materiality has escaped us" and which can be retrieved "only through the invention of narrative" (p. 135). For Mieke Bal, who sees the urge to bring parts of the outside world into a "subject-domain" as fetishistic, it is "the narrative nature of fetishism" that supplies "a crucial motivation for collecting" (p. 105). Although I do not find fetishism a more fundamental explanation of collecting than the search for order,[12] I do think that Bal's exposition of "the plot of collecting" is useful because of its explicit recognition that objects as well as collectors can be regarded as narrative agents (pp. 110-113)—and thus that the stories collected objects tell may be different from the role they play in the collector's own narrative.

The focus of such discussions is sometimes on collecting as a narrative itself and sometimes on the narratives that people find released by objects. The two naturally shade into each other: all the stories we associate with objects have a significant place in our collecting narratives because they form an important part of our relationship with the tangible world. Benjamin, as he was unpacking his library, recounted some of the episodes certain volumes conjured up, exclaiming "what memories crowd in upon you!" (p. 66). Nancy Hale, in the opening chapter of her classic reminiscence The Life in the Studio (1969), movingly lingers over the objects left in her mother's studio, recalling their associations with her mother, filtered through her own encounters with them while her mother was alive. The most extended such act of recollection is perhaps Mario Praz's La casa della vita (1958), in which the profuse detail of the stories aroused in him by each object matches the richness of his


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self-created environment. This congruence prepares the reader for Praz's feeling, at the end, that he has himself become one of his collected objects. Such an expression of unity with one's collection is a metaphor for the successful pursuit of understanding, the feeling that one has learned so much about certain objects as to make them no longer seem part of a puzzling realm outside the self. One looks at them with a feeling of mastery and deep comprehension.


The four aspects of collecting that I have been describing—the creation of order, a fascination with chance, curiosity about the past, and a desire for understanding—are all subsumed under the urge to tame the external world. This general idea, in which collecting is traced to a human need for making the environment seem less threatening and more understandable, has been much in evidence in the past few decades, as intellectual interest in the process of collecting has increased. The trend is symbolized by the seminal anthology The Cultures of Collecting (1994), edited by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, and by the volumes in Routledge's "The Collecting Cultures Series" (1995- ), edited by Susan M. Pearce. One can only applaud the growing tendency for cultural critics to address this subject, for—given its fundamental role in human life—it has been remarkably neglected (especially so outside the fields of psychology and object-relations psychoanalysis). But if there is a kind of consensus that collectors create stable controllable environments as a way of coping with the chaos of the so-called objective world and defining themselves in relation to it, there is much debate about the details of the process. I hope I can offer some perspective on the discussion by explaining my disagreements with one or two of the major commentators.

One of the better-known essays on collecting is Jean Baudrillard's "Le système marginal" (in Le système des objets, 1968). In the words of Roger Cardinal's fine translation (for The Cultures of Collecting), Baudrillard says that objects interpose, "in that space between the irreversible flux of existence and our own selves, a screen that is discontinuous, classifiable, reversible, as repetitive as one could wish, a fringe of the world that remains docile in our physical or mental grip, and thus wards off all anxiety" (p. 15). The act of collecting divests objects of their functions and makes them "participate in a mutual relationship" with their owners: the items in a collection "thereby constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together his world" (p. 7). These statements, and others like them in the essay, are


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admirable descriptions of the role of assembled objects in human lives, expressing a general point of view about collecting that one would scarcely wish to quarrel with. But the analysis that supports such generalizations has its flaws. For one thing, Baudrillard asserts, late in the essay, that he has been talking about "collecting proper," which he says is "distinct" from "accumulating"; yet he calls the latter "an inferior stage of collecting" (p. 22), thus placing it in the same realm after all and causing the reader to question whether a focus on only a part of the whole spectrum is the best way to search for the fundamental nature of collecting. It remains unclear whether Baudrillard regards "collecting proper" as an activity engaged in by all human beings, or whether he believes that only some reach that "stage" and others remain stalled at a lower level.

The question of the universality of collecting becomes a basic issue through his negative bias, which seems inappropriate if the activity is indeed universal. His comments on the "collecting impulse" of children and his apparent agreement with the view that "an individual who is not some sort of collector can only be a cretin or hopelessly subhuman" (p. 9) suggests that he thinks of collecting as a natural and universal human activity. But if so, it is hard to see why he treats it as regressive. Much of his discussion deals with collecting "as a powerful mechanism of compensation during critical phases in a person's sexual development," as "a regression to the anal stage" (p. 9), as an "escapist" passion leading to a "neurotic equilibrium" (p. 11) and often to a "sexually perverse pattern of behaviour" in which beauty is jealously savored "in isolation" (p. 18), and as a fetishistic activity, a "discreet variety of sexual perversion (p. 19). If, however, everyone engages in collecting to support "our very project of survival" (p. 7), why should it not be viewed in a positive light? The thought seems to have crossed Baudrillard's mind at the point where he asks, "can one really speak of normality or anomaly here?" (p. 16). This question has the potential to undermine his whole analysis and is not pursued. Instead, he continues to say that "the intercession of objects . . . allows us, albeit regressively, to live our lives" (p. 17), and he ends with the idea that "he who does collect can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity." But the essay fails to show why it is not equally possible to see collecting in a diametrically opposite way, not as evasion and escapism but as a human urge to connect with the world, to make sense of it so that one can feel in harmony with it and experience it more richly.

Another writer on these matters, one of the most prolific and thoughtful commentators on collecting and museum studies, is Susan M. Pearce, whose most ambitious work thus far is On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (1995). This book, which


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treats its subject under the heads of practice, poetics, and politics, is notable for its comprehensiveness, its insistent probing, and its command of the literature of the field.[13] Although it suffers from prolixity, it has its eloquent moments. In the particularly sensitive chapter on "Collecting in Time," for example, Pearce says this of objects: "our ability to manipulate them, . . . and their relationship to the thread of memory which they help to constitute, sustains our sense of ourselves as meaningful people passing through time" (p. 254). Scattered throughout the book are sentences that skillfully capture basic ideas about human attention to the physical world, such as the following two: "Objects embody human purposes and experiences, and they invite us to act towards them in ways which may give us what we desire" (p. 166); "Collections are psychic ordering, of individuality, of public and private relationships, and of time and space" (p. 279). Such statements as these—and the point, made in the second sentence of the book, that collecting is a "fundamentally significant aspect" of our relationship with objects, which in turn is "crucial to our lives"—suggest a definition of collecting broad enough to encompass everyone's accumulations.

It is surprising, therefore, that she seems content with a concept of collecting that excludes two-thirds of the population. She begins her series preface, "Nearly one in every three people in North America collects something" (the "Nearly" even implying that the number seems large). Later in the book she speaks of "a third of us" interacting with objects "in ways which result in what we may agree to call a collection" (p. 174). Her preliminary brief definition hints at a requirement of self-consciously purposive selectivity—"the gathering together and setting aside of selected objects "(p. 3)—though this definition would not have to be interpreted in so exclusive a way. But one of her more detailed definitions does make explicit several restrictive elements: collecting, she states, involves "the deliberate intention to create a group of material perceived by its possessor to be lifted out of the common purposes of daily life and to be appropriate to carry a significant investment of thought and feeling, and so also of time, trouble and resource" (p. 23). If only a minority fits this definition, she is faced with the question why those few "choose this way of defining themselves" (p. 174); and her answer, which brings us "as close as we are likely to get to an understanding of what makes a collector," is, "A combination of circumstance, accident and particular traits of personality" (p. 175). This is one of the most unsatisfactory discussions in the book, for this "explanation" could be


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said to apply to all human actions—certainly to a great deal besides collecting. At various points Pearce seems to be aware of the inhibiting role of her definition. For example, she is forced to say that an accumulation of souvenirs, which she distinguishes from a true collection, is nevertheless "a kind of collection" (p. 245). And interior decor, which she is quite right to discuss, can be taken up only after she apologetically allows for "reservations in the exact correspondence between 'room furnishings' and 'collections' in any pure mode, a purity which is in many ways unhelpful" (p. 257). At this point she should have abandoned her definition.[14]

These comments on Baudrillard and Pearce can serve to suggest what seems to me a basic defect in much of the writing about collecting: the act of collecting is often seen as an aberration, if not a disorder, affecting some portion (frequently a small one) of the human population.[15] This proposition is one that I believe breaks down the more one thinks about it. The relative number of people engaged in collecting is a significant matter, for it determines whether one can reasonably speak of this behavior as an abnormality. Defining collecting so as to include everyone makes sense if two conditions apply: if, first, one cannot form clear-cut distinctions between categories of gathering and, second, one hopes to arrive at the most fundamental understanding of the activity. These two conditions are naturally related, for if one continually finds that attempted categories overlap one another, one should perhaps conclude that there is a broader concept linking them and that one has not found a helpful way of subdividing it. (What one may have identified are some of the characteristics, not always mutually exclusive, that are combined in varying proportions in individual instances.) I am not concerned with terminology: I do not care whether we use "collecting," "gathering," or "accumulating" as the most comprehensive term, or whether we treat all three as synonyms (as I have done here) or find yet another word. What is important is that any concepts we choose to distinguish by separate terms be logically distinct, so that the terminology is an aid to clear thinking and not in itself a cause of confusion.

As I indicated at the outset, it is hard to see how logical distinctions can be made according to how active or purposive or focused collecting


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is, or how many hours, days, or years the assembled objects must be retained, or how utilitarian the reasons for retention are—or any similar attempts to cut up a continuum. What holds all individual acts of collecting together is simply the grasping or receiving of a physical thing, a part of the material world, and the subsequent segregating of it, through personal possession, from the rest of that world. And it would seem that the reason people engage in this activity—the most comprehensive reason, encompassing the others—is their need to feel in control of some part of the chaos around them, to feel that there is some order in relation to which they can define themselves. People in general, not surprisingly, furnish other reasons. Most often, probably, they say that they acquire certain objects simply because those objects give them enjoyment, but in so saying they have not fully analyzed the situation. It may be true that aesthetic satisfaction—which itself may come from the ordering power of the artistry—is what draws them to one group of objects rather than another; but the desire to possess the objects, and the pleasure that comes from such possession, stem from the more inclusive urge to achieve a measure of dominance over the environment. (One can experience aesthetic enjoyment, after all, without physical possession; and one can enjoy the possession of objects that do not in themselves give one aesthetic pleasure.) I am glad to see that this general explanation for collecting is now widely accepted, in one form or another. But it is of course only an hypothesis, and its acceptance is not crucial to my main point: collecting is part of the behavior of every person, and by definition it is therefore not abnormal.

From that basic point, one can move on to consider what makes individual cases different, why some people seem to become pathological or obsessive in their collecting, why some are more methodical than others, or focus on certain kinds of objects, or think about the growth in monetary value of their possessions, and so on. The infinite variety of combinations and intensities of motivation, being the product of those great mysteries circumstance and temperament, cannot be fully plumbed. But each unique history can be examined, and generalizations can be framed about the patterns these histories fall into. Studies of both kinds are regularly produced,[16] but investigations on this level do not often penetrate to the roots of collecting. There is an underlying ground that unites the diverse accounts, and the detailed histories and analyses of collectors and collecting take on different meanings and are more


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satisfying when they emerge from an acceptance of collecting as an elemental ingredient of the human condition.


A similarly broad conception of collecting informs one of the best short essays on the subject, John Elsner and Roger Cardinal's introduction to The Cultures of Collecting. Their purview encompasses not only private collectors but also the "appointed collectors" of the "social world," such as garbage collectors, ticket collectors, and tax collectors (p. 2). This kind of gathering must be included within the collecting universe I am discussing, and is not easily separable from the rest of it, for those who collect as public officials also inevitably have other private collections of their own, and the two realms can never be entirely distinct. Collecting undertaken as part of one's occupation (the collecting done by museum and library curators, for example, as well as by certain government employees) is ostensibly shaped by institutional policies; but however different a person's professional and personal collections are (often different as a matter of principle, to avoid a conflict of interest), there are bound to be similarities—in approach if not in type of object—because of the link to the same personality. And institutional policies themselves are the constantly evolving products of individuals, whose private attitudes and collecting practices affect their professional judgments.

Elsner and Cardinal's piece serves to remind us that a rationale of collecting should cover not only the functions of collecting for the individual but also its social uses. One could say, of course, that the private satisfactions are themselves the primary public benefit; for by accommodating a basic human need and making individuals feel more in tune with their environment, collecting contributes some degree of harmony and stability to society at large. Another way that collecting has a social function is its role in a market economy. Russell W. Belk, in a book devoted to this subject (Collecting in a Consumer Society, 1995), concludes that collecting (which he treats as a form of consumption) is "a relatively healthy activity that invigorates consumer life with passion and purpose" (p. 158). Although his view of collecting is overly narrow (focusing on "inessential luxury goods" [p. 157]) and his criticisms of museums (as elitist bastions of entrenched materialistic taste) are overstated, he does usefully recognize that individual collectors of independent mind, who are not swayed in their interests by market trends, can eventually influence institutional collecting and public exhibitions. And, one might


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add, this influence in turn affects market prices, which are a powerful force for preservation.

The role of private collecting in the evolution of museum displays points directly to a more fundamental contribution that collecting makes to public life: it affects the way everyone sees the world. One person's set of possessions, whether glimpsed by a few neighbors or more widely shared in a private or institutional setting, is part of the external chaos faced by other people and thus plays a role in their experience of life. However coherent or formless a group of possessions may appear, it inevitably offers juxtapositions that would not have existed without the collector's intervention in the fates of those objects. Since everyone is a collector, what we are really talking about is one of the ways humanity leaves its mark on the environment. The motivations of those whose marks—in the form of their possessions—are still evident may not be understood, and in any case we may not have the same responses as our predecessors to the groupings they formed; but those configurations are part of the given that we have inherited, influencing our own efforts to make sense of what we see and our own assemblages of objects. Whatever understanding we create for ourselves is different from what it would have been if the material world, including other people's accumulations, had been different. This situation is the basis for what we call the advancement of knowledge. What I see in a group of objects may turn out to be the same as what some earlier viewers (including perhaps the collector) saw there, and it is likely to be something I would not have perceived without that particular conjunction of objects. When people repeatedly find the same patterns, they form the consensus necessary to justify calling what they have found a fact (which of course can only be a provisional classification, subject to refutation). In this way collections advance knowledge.

Preservation is the underlying key to such advances, because without the survival of the items repeated viewings of them could not occur. Even though the meanings of objects derive from their contexts and associations, the objects themselves must exist before they can be studied in a context; and the role of collectors in salvaging things, at least for a while, from the destructive stream of time is the fundamental service they provide to the growth of learning. Objects surviving from the past (ancient or recent) sometimes seem suspended in a puzzling limbo without context, but they are nevertheless there, awaiting future observation. In the words of Eilean Hooper- Greenhill, "The radical potential of material culture, of concrete objects, of real things, of primary sources, is the endless possibility of rereading" (the conclusion of Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, 1992). Their survival allows them to be our touchstones


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to the past, placing us in a line of succession that links all those who have touched the objects from the time of their creation to the present. As Elsner and Cardinal say, there is "a past that lies right here"; and collecting, which preserves that past, is important "because it shuns closure and the security of received evaluations" and focuses our attention on what surrounds us, "in all its unpredictability and contingent complexity" (pp. 5-6). In this spirit, they emphasize the usefulness of collecting "against the grain." This frame of mind is characterized by openness and independence, by a recognition that everything is worthy of being saved, not just those things that are regarded as "collectible" by the fashion of a given moment.[17] No collecting is trivial, on either a personal or a public level, because there is no limit to what may have significance for a given individual or within a given milieu.

In the now thriving field of museum studies (which has produced much of the recent writing about collecting)[18], there has been some debate over the relative value of objects versus the value of the knowledge derived from them. Put another way, the question is whether museums should emphasize the acquisition and display of objects or the creation of contextual educational exhibits in which original objects, if present at all, are subordinated to broader historical recreation and


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explication. This supposed issue is one of those false dilemmas where the two sides are so interrelated that they cannot be separated. Those who take the side of the objects are of course right in the sense that the objects must come first; but stating one's allegiance to objects in the framework of this debate implies that they can be seen independently of the subjective responses they arouse. One cannot complain about explicitly pedagogical displays on the grounds that they yoke objects to a particular present-day viewpoint, for any selection and arrangement of objects inevitably does the same thing; but one can legitimately disapprove of any extrapolation that implies its own infallibility or self-sufficiency. All collectors (individual or institutional) acquire and place objects in relation to some context, which emerges from a combination of temperament and learning; and their imaginative constructs cause observers (who can also be called the next round of collectors) to have insights, and to form collections, that might not have occurred otherwise. This ineluctable process leads us toward the only kind of truths we can have about the past— for while we can never wholly avoid reading the present into a past object, we can make a conscious effort not to, and unless we proceed in this fashion no knowledge is possible.

The way objects convey knowledge has been made clearer in the past few decades by the development of a field, or an approach, called "material culture study." Although it ought to be obvious that we learn about the past through its physical survival, this point in its broadest implications has been little enough regarded in the past that the recent writers on material culture have often been considered proselytizers for something new and have not infrequently met with resistance. By now there have been a number of useful statements on the subject (as well as studies exemplifying the approach), but even the best of them often exhibit a curious disparity in their treatment of objects that carry verbal texts (like books and manuscripts) and those that do not. For example, the art historian Jules David Prown, in his 1982 essay "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method" (Winterthur Portfolio, 17: 1-19), almost undercuts his perceptive discussion by asserting near the end that artifacts "tell us something, but facts are transmitted better by verbal documents." He is by no means alone in perpetuating the unexamined assumption, implicit here, that words speak to us more unambiguously and truthfully than visual images do, and thus that "documents" (artifacts transmitting verbal texts) are somehow different, in essence, from other objects. Another instance is Gaynor Kavanagh's statement that "to question whether for historians objects have value as evidence or not is perhaps as crass and vacuous as questioning


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whether documents have value as evidence." Not only does Kavanagh weaken his argument by distinguishing documents from objects, but he proceeds to give the wrong answer to his question: "The plain fact is," he says, "that some have and some have not."[19] But what material culture study must convey, if it is to elaborate its basic insight coherently, is both a recognition of the value of all physical objects, without exception, and an understanding of the ontological sameness of them all. Printed matter is still matter; and what its words seem to be saying (rarely a certainty in any case) must be interpreted in relation to what the whole object is saying.

For these reasons, book collecting is a particularly instructive example of how the assembly of objects contributes to the growth of knowledge. Many people assume that verbal texts can readily be transferred intact from one object to another; to them, the only reason to collect "books" (physical objects) instead of "works" (texts in any embodiment) is an interest in the crafts of bookmaking and in the printing and publishing industries. Indeed, "book collectors" are often thought of as falling into two categories, those who assemble texts (in any edition) to be read and those who bring together specific editions, not necessarily to be read but to be possessed as objects worthy of attention. The latter group is sometimes ridiculed as not seriously interested in the ideas conveyed by verbal works; but anyone who makes such a criticism can only be a person who has not yet learned that books, being physical objects, are most fruitfully read in the same way that all other objects are "read." The field of analytical bibliography, now about a century and a half old, exists to demonstrate that the physical evidence in books can disclose a great deal about how those books were produced, what effect the production process had on the texts, and how the texts were perceived by those who produced the books and those who read them. Scholars in this field, by studying books as physical objects, contribute to printing and publishing history, to scholarly editing, to the history of reading, to the whole process of placing texts in historical contexts.[20] That the makeup


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and wording of texts are affected by the processes of book- production means that the interpretation of texts can never be divorced from the examination of the objects conveying them. Our reading of verbal works and our knowledge of their origins would be impoverished if we had only current reproductions of texts and were deprived of the great store of books that are physical survivors from earlier times. Book collecting therefore advances knowledge in the same way that the saving of all other objects contributes to our understanding of the past. And this understanding, in turn, affects our life in the present—not only in the sense usually meant by this conventional sentiment but also because those objects are a part of the present.

Nabokov's well-known account of his "obsession" with butterflies and butterfly-collecting—originally published in The New Yorker (12 June 1948), it became the sixth chapter of Speak, Memory (1966)—provides an eloquent illustration of how the strands discussed here come together in individual lives. Butterflies did serve, for Nabokov, as tangible reminders of episodes in his own life, and even the smell of ether, used as the killing agent for one of his earliest childhood catches, "would always cause the porch of the past to light up" (p. 121). His further encounters with butterflies, his repeated acts of observation and pursuit, made him an expert lepidopterist—one who, indeed, contributed to the field through important published papers. His understanding that collecting and rigorous thinking go hand in hand was shown by his ridicule of those who advocated the relaxing of scientific standards for collectors: "Their solicitude for the 'average collector who should not be made to dissect' is comparable to the way nervous publishers of popular novels pamper the 'average reader'—who should not be made to think" (p. 124). Nabokov of course wrote novels as well as scientific articles, and he saw the connections: "I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art" (p. 125). He reserved his most moving words for a description of "the highest enjoyment of timelessness" that came to him when he stood outdoors among "rare butterflies":

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (p. 139)


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One can have such an epiphany in nature without being a collector of natural things, but whatever accumulations one does have put one in the frame of mind for creating this private sense of belonging. Nabokov's response to butterflies in the wild was undoubtedly reinforced by his experience of placing them in his collection, just as everyone's constructed settings provide patterns for seeing the world.

For some people, the pleasure of amassing objects is increased by knowing that the activity supports scholarship, science, and art; for others, the satisfactions are entirely personal, but the results are nevertheless of public benefit. Collecting is a prime example of behavior in which private desire and social gain are mutually supportive. This symbiosis is not surprising, since the drive that brings about private assemblages of objects is the same one that impels scientists, artists, and scholars to search for meaning on a level that others can assent to, producing in the process the consensus that is knowledge. The paradox that our search for organization and regularity is conducted with passion and primal energy was brilliantly captured by Wallace Stevens in the phrase "rage for order." The woman he describes (in "The Idea of Order at Key West"), striding along the beach singing, not only creates order for herself through her song but also affects the way her listeners subsequently view their surroundings, causing them to see patterns in the reflections of the fishing-boats' lights, which "Mastered the night and portioned out the sea."

This feeling of mastery, however temporary and provisional, is an emotional necessity, and we all are masters of the collections we surround ourselves with, all artists who create worlds with accumulated objects, whether or not we pursue our visions into the public sphere through display, research, or one of the forms we call "art." What Joseph Cornell did, in shaping his inspired boxes out of that vast assemblage of seemingly heterogeneous objects in his Utopia Parkway house, is symbolic of what many others, often in less direct ways, have made of their object-filled surroundings. For Stevens, the rage for order is a "Blessed rage for order" because this drive alone gives us a glimpse of what it means to be at home, to feel secure, in the universe. The collecting we all do, with its varying repercussions, private and public, is our way of venting that rage, of finding ourselves.



See, for example, Maurice Rheims's discussion in La vie étrange des objets (1959), translated by David Pryce-Jones in 1961 as The Strange Life of Objects ("The Collectors' Instinct among Animals," pp. 19-20).


In early 1994 the New York firm of Frederick Schultz Ancient Art mounted an exhibition, entitled "Power Tools," designed to illustrate this conclusion, which had been argued by a number of archeologists.


Four decades earlier Bohun Lynch, in Collecting (1928), had similarly referred to "poor folk who definitely and at any price refuse to part with the possessions of their forefathers" (p. 42); he ended his book by saying, "it is the things that we look at and touch for no practical ends with which, for one reason or another, we can least happily dispense."


An example of the unsatisfactory handling of this point occurs in Herbert Read's introduction to Niels von Holst's Creators, Collectors and Connoisseurs: The Anatomy of Artistic Taste from Antiquity to the Present Day (1967). After declaring that "purposive collecting" and "mere accumulation of miscellaneous objects" must be distinguished, Read then in fact links them, in their origins and functions, when he says that "possessions in general may be said to give a sense of security" (p. 3).


One writer on collecting who does specifically include experiences in his definition is Russell W. Belk, but his discussions proceed as if he is thinking only of tangible items. See "Collectors and Collecting," Advances in Consumer Research, 15 (1988), 548-553 (reprinted in Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. Susan M. Pearce [1994], pp. 317-326); and Collecting in a Consumer Society (1995), e.g. p. 66.


When the collecting of living things focuses on human beings, as in a collection of slaves, it of course becomes morally reprehensible. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, in their introduction to The Cultures of Collecting (1994), which I discuss further below, examine the Holocaust as an instance of such collecting. The collecting of people is frequently a metaphor, as when the entomologist narrator of John Fowles's novel The Collector (1963) says, "Seeing her always made me feel like I was catching a rarity"—she was "for the real connoisseur" (p. 1). David Vander Meulen has called my attention to June Carter Cash's concept of "klediments" (in her 1979 memoir, Among My Klediments), which encompasses people as well as inanimate objects. As quoted in the Dictionary of American Regional English entry for "clatterment" (of which "klediment" is a variant spelling derived from regional pronunciation), Cash says, "A klediment can be almost anything that has earned a right to be a part of things close to you. It can be precious antique furniture gathered from grandmother, pieces of china, little handmade doilies, the straw mats on your floor, or the priscilla curtains you made yourself. A klediment can be a thing you love . . . A klediment can be a thing you just won't throw away . . . A klediment can be a person dear to you." Clearly Cash is talking about something larger than "possessions," for she is not claiming to possess the people close to her; her definition of "klediment" recognizes that each person's intimate environment comprises things one does not possess as well as those one does own. The study of collecting, as I have defined it, helps to show how the latter affect one's way of responding to the former.


James's foreshadowing of recent discussions is also illustrated by his observation that the loss of a collection produces "a sense of the shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness" (p. 178). A convenient brief survey of psychoanalytic ideas on collecting appears in the opening pages of Ruth Formanek's "Why They Collect: Collectors Reveal Their Motivations," reprinted in Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. Susan M. Pearce (1994), pp. 327-335. See also the checklist at the end of Muensterberger's book.


He also acknowledges the high costs of passionate engagements, incurred by "our uniquely evolved consciousness," and says, "The passion for collecting is a full-time job, a kind of blessed obsession." Notice that Wallace Stevens also uses the adjective "blessed" to make essentially the same point (the famous Stevens passage is mentioned at the end of the present essay).


The quantitative element in expertise is recognized by Stowers Johnson in his autobiography Collector's World (1989) when he says, "I have found the very volume of a collection deepens experience and betters discriminatory judgement" (p. 203).


As Tibor Fischer understood when he made an antique bowl the narrator of his novel The Collector Collector (1997). See also Thatcher Freund, Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them (1993); cf. his "The Tales a Table Could Tell," New York Times Magazine, 16 January 1994, pp. 22-27, 38-40, 48, 54, 60.


"Collecting and Collage-Making: The Case of Kurt Schwitters," in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (1994), pp. 68-96.


Indeed, I find the logic of the argument unclear. If fetishism is "the beginning of the beginning of collecting seen as narrative" (p. 110) and if "collecting is a story, and everyone needs to tell it" (p. 103), then everyone is a fetishist. But why does Bal define collecting in such a restrictive way as to write, "Yet, it is obvious that not every human being is, or can afford to be, a collector" (p. 103)? Bal's essay, "Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting," appears on pp. 97-115 of the Elsner and Cardinal anthology cited in the preceding note.


It reuses some material from a previous book, Museums, Objects and Collections: A Cultural Study (1992). (These books, incidentally, contain useful listings of writings about collecting.) For other publications of hers, see notes 14 and 18 below.


In one of her anthologies, Interpreting Objects and Collections (1994), she offers a criticism that applies to her own definition: "Forming a worthwhile definition of what makes a collection, and distinguishing it from other kinds of accumulation, is difficult, not least because all such definitions tend to be self-serving and circular, and so leave out much interesting material for reasons which do not bear much investigation" (p. 157).


Pearce does say that collectors are "normal members of the contemporary social and family world" (p. 234); but by regarding only a third of the population as collectors she nevertheless makes collecting, by definition, an abnormal activity.


For a comprehensive list of such studies in English relating to book collecting, see my Introduction to Bibliography: Seminar Syllabus (pp. 20-27 and 49-61 in the latest revision, 1996). An extensive list dealing with art collecting can be found in Frank Herrmann's The English as Collectors: A Documentary Chrestomathy (1972; rev. 1996) and in the accompanying exhibition catalogue published by the National Book League (1972).


This attitude is exemplified in Ivor Noël Hume's statement, "I find . . . the commonplace of yesterday more evocative than its treasures" (All the Best Rubbish [1974], p. 9). (His use of "treasures" of course refers to what has been traditionally sought after and has achieved status in the marketplace; he is not suggesting that the "commonplace" items are not also treasures in a different sense.) A similar point of view pervades Howard Mansfield's In the Memory House (1993). Although many kinds of objects are neglected, the range of items that people do collect in a dedicated way is immense, as evidenced by any number of journalistic articles focusing on collections that seem unusual or bizarre. See, for example, Lucie Young, "The Possessed: When Too Much Is Not Enough," New York Times, 6 February 1997, pp. C1, C6. (This article, incidentally, cites Russell Belk [see note 5 above] as saying in an interview that the conventional estimate of the number of Americans who collect—one in three—is too low; but there is no suggestion that he thinks the definition underlying the estimate should be changed.) For further examples of the wide variety of items that have been considered "collectible," see John Windsor, "Identity Parades," in The Cultures of Collecting (see note 11 above), pp. 49-67.


Susan M. Pearce's anthology Museum Studies in Material Culture (1989) emerged from a conference celebrating the twenty-first anniversary of the 1966 founding of the Department of Museum Studies at Leicester University. Among Pearce's activities on behalf of this field is her editing of a series called "Leicester Readers in Museum Studies." She also edited a volume, Objects of Knowledge, published as Volume 1 of Athlone Press's "New Research in Museum Studies." And the Oxford periodical Journal of the History of Collections, founded by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor in 1989, developed from a 1983 conference and the resulting 1985 volume, The Origins of Museums (also edited by Impey and MacGregor). The general topic of how knowledge has emerged from the assembly of objects persistently recurs in such books. A good example of a detailed study of this point is Paula Findlen's Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (1994). A recent symposium entitled "The Meaning of Things," sponsored by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum on 25 April 1998, included a paper by Amy K. Levin on "Museum Collecting and Collecting Museums."


"Objects as Evidence, or Not?", in Museum Studies in Material Culture, ed. Susan M. Pearce (1989), pp. 125-137 (quotation from p. 126). For further examples of the debates over material culture and of the difficulties people have had in thinking of texts as objects, see footnote 11 (pp. 275-276) of my "Printing History and Other History," Studies in Bibliography, 48 (1995), 269-289.


Some introduction to this field can be found in several of my essays, such as "Physical Bibliography in the Twentieth Century," in Books, Manuscripts, and the History of Medicine: Essays on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Osler Library, ed. Philip M. Teigen (1982), pp. 55-79; "The Evolving Role of Bibliography, 1884-1984," in Books and Prints, Past and Present: Papers Presented at The Grolier Club Centennial Convocation (1984), pp. 15-31; "Issues in Bibliographical Studies since 1942," in The Book Encompassed: Studies in Twentieth- Century Bibliography, ed. Peter Davison (1992), pp. 24-36. A more thorough introduction, not yet published, was provided by my 1997 Sandars Lectures, entitled "Analytical Bibliography: An Historical Introduction." A fairly comprehensive listing of the literature of analytical bibliography is included in my Introduction to Bibliography: Seminar Syllabus (pp. 169-198 in the latest revision, 1996).