A friend of mine called me recently and asked, “Do you still collect 78 rpm records? Because I have a pile in my garage you can have if you just take them away.”
To a collector, that is music to the ears—literally and figuratively.
The older I get, the more I think about collecting, collections, and our uniquely human quirk to amass whatever interests us. To those not afflicted with the urge to collect, my floor-to-ceiling piles of books and records must make me seem like one of those eccentrics on the TV show Hoarders.
But as my daughter likes to point out, “It isn’t hoarding if you have cool stuff.”
Why do people collect things? A psychologist might say the collector is trying to recover something of their childhood, which makes sense, I guess—except my collection obsession started in my childhood.
I remember spending whole winter afternoons by the wood stove, arranging my hundreds of comic books into various piles, sorting them according to genre or character. My favorites were the Uncle Scrooge comics, especially the classic Carl Barks stories, but I also had a lot of Archie comics a neighbor had given me in an old apple crate.
Going back further than I can really even remember, my mother tells me I collected things. Once when I was 3 or 4 years old, she was doing laundry and couldn’t figure out where all the socks had gone. She discovered I had “collected” them all in a pile in my closet.
I vaguely remember being obsessed with spent brass from the old impromptu shooting ranges you could find somewhere along almost every dirt road out of town and imploring my parents to drive me out where I’d fill coffee cans with .22 shells.
Part of the compulsion to collect probably also stems from the idealistic notion that one can complete a set of some sort. What Beatles fan, for example, would not want to acquire all their music? But the true collector goes much further: these are the people who seek out, not just the music, but a copy of every release—British and American—or they get on eBay and look for associated material, like ticket stubs, fanzines, and bootleg recordings.
Other collectors are even more laser-focused. Believe it or not, there’s a guy out there who collects only copies of the Beatles’ White Album—and he has hundreds of copies.
In my own case, I’m not exactly sure why I collect things, but I have concluded it isn’t the objects themselves that delight me, but something more like the thrill of the hunt.
How do I know this? To take just one example, I have collected at least three times in my life practically every 78 rpm record that Hank Williams put out on the MGM label. I listen to them, of course, but eventually I purge the whole set—selling them on eBay or trading them to some other collector for whatever my latest interest is.
But then I’ll find another Hank 78 at a garage sale and start the whole process over again. I’ve realized that it’s the seeking and finding that excites me, and not so much the actual possession of the material object.
I’ve realized also I’m not a “completist,” either, which is the term describing collectors who don’t stop until they have everything on the list.
I met a surgeon in Savannah, Georgia, once who invited me to his house to show off his collection of books, which was one of the more interesting collections I have ever seen. He made it his mission to track down and acquire every single book (in its first edition state, of course) that the poet T.S. Eliot mentions or cites in his epic poem, “The Waste Land.”
This fellow compiled a list and then methodically sought out each one over the course of 20 or so years, until he had a rather large bookcase in his living room filled with the completed collection.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay in 1968—a year or so before I began my collecting career—in which he mused, “In the end, what one collects is oneself.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot as I look around at my idiosyncratic piles of stuff.
And you know yourself—if you’re one of those people who has to park on the street or in the driveway because the garage is jammed with everything you collect. You know. ISI