A Preliminary Inquiry into the Nature of Book Collecting
A Lecture by John Gach first delivered in March 1999 to the Baltimore Bibliophiles and again in March 2001 to the Rowfant Club in Cleveland
Introduction: Books and Texts
I shall this evening be mostly concerned with the phenomenology of the connections of collectors to collecteds. Instead of explaining collecting by reducing it to what it is not, I shall try to explore cognitive and emotional aspects of collecting in general and book collecting in particular without ever losing sight of collecting itself. I shall endeavor to describe structures and patterns underlying the relationships of collectors to their coveted objects, especially of book collectors to books. Collectors are no more conscious of such patterns than bicyclists are conscious of the mechanics and physiology of bicycling.
The last time I gave a talk on a similar topic I recall putting the audience to sleep—perhaps my only contribution to humankind’s betterment. In that earlier lecture, produced in my prepostmodernist high "structuralist" phase, I gave a very abstract semistructuralist and semiotic analysis of the relationship of book collecting to academic scholarship, more or less attempting to show, among other things, that collecting the physical manifestations of texts is a necessary condition for scholarship.
I shall here recapitulate only those points required to understand what I shall be discussing tonight. We have created books after the image we have of ourselves: material things with bodies and souls. Texts are the souls and book-forms—the actually existing presentations of texts—the bodies. Texts are sequences of words arranged in a meaningful pattern according to the grammar and syntax of a language in such manner as either to constitute or to purport to constitute a unitary object. Physical books store texts in a re-usable form. There are, of course, other ways to store texts: manuscripts, various modes of computer storage, and human memories come to mind. Restricting myself to book-forms of the kinds with which we are all familiar, it is obvious that between the initial creation of a text and its final distribution in physical forms a complex mediating process must be involved: the work of editors, designers, printers, publishers, binders, wholesalers, retailers, and so on. Analytical and descriptive bibliography chart the passage of texts through this mediating process and chronicle the succession of appearing texts.
In the days when authors produced manuscripts or typescripts instead of computer files we had a clear procession from the completion of a text, through its passage in the mediating processes of production, and on to its emergence in book-form. Along the way, texts typically change—sometimes a lot. Thomas Wolfe’s novels, for example, were qua books actually a product of the editing process at Scribner’s, with the published books bearing little more than a family resemblance to the monstrous and unwieldy manuscripts Wolfe submitted.
In most cases the physically existing book-forms are the only surviving exemplars we have of an author’s text. In such cases the Ur-text can be nought but an ideal construction—though I and many others would argue that such is the case for all texts, regardless of whether manuscripts exist or not. The Kidd-Gabler controversy in the 1980s about the Ur-text of Joyce’s Ulysses perfectly illustrates the point, as richly detailed at the time in the New York Review of Books.
There are, as I need not tell this audience, two distinct sorts of reasons for wanting books: as presentations of a text one wishes to read (or fantasies that one will have time so to do) and as physical objects with their own interest, histories, associations, connections. If one’s sole motive is to read the text, then the material characteristics of the object are secondary, though even for reading they are not irrelevant. From my experience as a bookseller I can guarantee that people who do not collect and who know nothing about books as physical objects react quite sensitively to the aesthetic properties of books, though they lack the vocabulary and conceptual apparatus for talking or thinking about books as material things.
The two motives do not necessarily conflict: one can want a physical book both to read and for its other attributes as well. Reading and possessing only conflict where the physical characteristics of the desired object have nothing to do with reading, as is the case with publisher’s dummies, fine bindings, unopened copies, perfect copies in dust jacket of modern firsts. Certainly most of my customers who buy antiquarian books acquire them both as readable texts and as material artifacts the possession of which pleases them.
So where does the joy in acquiring and possessing antiquarian books come from? Why do we do it?
What Are Collectors and What Do They Do?
Well, of course, we don’t all do it. According to a recent survey of Americans coming out of new bookstores, fewer than one percent had even heard of secondhand books, much less rare books. It’s a pretty recherché and culturally elitist endeavor, almost by definition. And that, of course, is one of its pleasures. Few mind sharing the higher status of belonging to an elite group.
I mention that in passing, because I do not believe it plays a very important part in collecting, except deep in bookdom at the level of assembling world class collections. There it can be quite an important motive, even a primary one. But that would usually occur only after one has already been collecting for some time and is fully conversant with all the implicit rules of collecting.
There are, I believe, two basic types of collectors: those who collected in childhood and those who did not. The childhood collectors I shall term nativist collectors – those who, if they do not collect, suffer emotional distress similar, if you’ll pardon an egregious example at the far end of psychopathology, to the mounting tension and feelings of inadequacy and incompletion of the serial killer denied his next victim. In short, the nativist collector’s identity entails and depends upon collecting. Those who began collecting after childhood, whom I shall term habitual collectors, have acquired the habit of collecting as one among many other interests.
There are, of course, many good reasons for collecting even if one is not ineluctably driven so to do. To cite a principal reason: Assemblages of objects related through possession of shared attributes are themselves distinct objects knowable only through the assemblages themselves. No collection, no object to know. So, collecting provides a means of learning about the world that can not be accomplished any other way. Collecting imposes an order upon the world – objects collected are by definition gathered according to some ordering principle rather than randomly. Collecting imposes an order upon the world and guarantees that the world is an orderly place. In times and places of upheaval and revolution one finds little if any collecting. It’s what we do after we feel safe and have enough to eat and, like library budgets for antiquarian books, is the first thing to go when trouble looms. The collector refracts his or – increasingly often – her experience through the collecting. The corresponding mental structures allow one to experience the world as nonchaotic, or at least as a place where chaos can be transformed into order through a set of rules.
In my lifetime as a bookseller I have seen one revolution in collecting worth commenting about. From my own experience as a bookseller for 32 years I can document the vast increase in women collectors in the last two decades, which is obviously a consequence of the accession of women in postindustrial societies to full legal and social personhood. For centuries women have collected in object domains defined as female (for example, flowers, art, children’s books). Increasingly we now find women collecting in areas hitherto defined as bastions of male privilege, such as science and medicine. Book collecting strikes me as more empowering than most forms of collecting. Women --- for so long the objects of desire -- qua book collectors become desirers rather than desireds, transform into subjects rather than objects. Closely associated with masculine power, book-forms are artifacts displaying the creativity, capital, and know-how required to produce material objects, while books as texts symbolize and represent a culture’s complex mental patterns – all of which radically departs from the traditional rooting of feminine creativity in the female body with the production of children. Hitherto a mostly male preoccupation, book collecting, through ownership and control, asserts power over the objects encoding power.
Psychoanalytically, collecting has typically been construed as anal-retentive, compulsive behavior. When I first began seriously contemplating these issues some twenty-three years ago, I rejected the psychoanalytic model in favor of semiotic and structuralist ways of thinking about the topic of collecting, for the analytic model explains too little by explaining too much. The problem with reducing book-collecting to its infantile origins is that the reduction does nothing to explain object choice—why books instead of stamps or art nouveau posters or whatever other object domain you can think of that might be collectible? This is an issue to which I shall also presently return.
Dealers, many of whom began as collectors, are a particularly interesting bunch. Rob Wozniak, a psychologist-collector friend at Bryn Mawr, succinctly described the difference between collectors and dealers this way: the collector needs both the moment of acquisition and the moment of possession, while the dealer lives for the moment of acquisition. Well, yes, but let us not forget the importance to dealers of parting with their objects. Dealers --- if they are any good at what they do—are those who have mastered the complex connections between collectors as classes of desirers and covetable objects as classes of desireds, the relationship between the two domains being the dealer’s price. Once a dealer has bought a book—and I mean one for which a significant sum of money has been paid—he or she really wants to sell it. Selling a book for the price put on it confirms the dealer’s judgment, both putting some always useful funds in the bank account and bolstering the dealer’s self-esteem. Though we don’t broadcast the fact to our customers, we dealers make mistakes all the time—how else does one learn? Since I regard my prices as formulae relating desirers to desireds, if someone convinces me that I’ve priced a book incorrectly—that is, that I have miscalibrated the relationship --, I’ll change the price either up or down. I learned long ago that in this business a modicum of humility is a useful asset. Since one’s prices are probabilistic assessments guaranteed to change over time, one must be prepared to change them in the light of new knowledge. Please note that this is an entirely distinct issue from discounts, for what is at stake here is a dealer’s subjective judgement about an objectively existing relationship.
Collecting entails learning rules for identifying what count as objects and what characteristics make some of the objects better than others -- in short, how to rank them into hierarchies of desireds. This is true of both kinds of collectors. Why do some people collect books rather than art or postcards or cigar labels? Typically book collectors were already readers, by which I mean prodigious readers for whom reading became their principal means for learning about the world. Just as there are two kinds of collecting, which I have termed "nativist" and "habitual," there seem to me to be two kinds of readers: those like myself who need psychologically to read and those who read for pragmatic reasons only—for school, because they are writing a paper, to acquire expertise in a particular domain of knowledge, etc. Members of the first group, those who cannot imagine themselves not reading and whose very identity entails reading, are already predisposed to collect books, should they be the kinds of persons driven to collect. Reading means loving the texts, book collecting means loving the physical objects that present the texts.
A brief example to illustrate object-choice in collecting: A psychiatrist customer had acquired from me in the 1980s and early 1990s a half dozen or so significant psychiatric books, ranging in condition from pleasing to exemplary. He recently consigned them back to me, explaining that collecting books just didn’t give him the same pleasure as collecting art. He needs to collect—but not books.
Those physical objects, books—or, to use my preferred term deliberately meant to call to mind Plato, book-forms—reek of humanity. They have tactile and visual properties and individual histories that establish each existing book-form, once it has been in the world a while, as unique. Few people not intimately involved in book collecting understand quite the extent to which we relate to books as individual beings. As a bookseller who has handled hundreds of thousands of books in just a few specialties I can affirm that very few books other than the new books that we sell appear to me as identical. Even members of the same narrow subclass of edition and printing exhibit differences. Any book is potentially interesting, and if one waits long enough will almost certainly be desirable to some person for some reason.
Desire, Desiring, Desirers
I’ve used the term "desire" and its permutations several times already without specifying either what desire is or what makes a book desirable. Desire is the "oomph," the push or impulsion that drives us to an action, the completion of which (to borrow from Freud) diminishes our state of tension. In the case of collecting this typically means the acquisition of an object, the idea of the possession of which excites us and the lack of which (with a nod to Lacan) impels us to fill the lack. Note, though, firstly, that it is the idea of possession that excites rather than the actual possession and, secondly, that collecting designates not just the act of acquisition with its consequent (and temporary) tension-reduction, but rather that it entails the entire system of desiring, which includes coveting, acquisition, and possession as elements.
So, we are talking about a kind of tumescence and detumescence. And before the detumescence—the tension reduction, or in Freud’s terms the diminution of unpleasure ("Unlust") -- comes a "rush" with opioids pouring into the brain’s pleasure center. Whence this "rush" we all have experienced? It can come from several sources. Finding a book that one never dreamed one would find, or finding it in a condition or binding that is nonpareil—either can induce the collector’s "rush." I might add that finding it at a bargain price does nothing to diminish the flow of endorphins. In order for this to happen, though, you already have to know a lot about the object domains to which the book belongs.
I have, sadly, seen pathological cases of book-desiring, by which I mean not the buying of more or more costly books than one can afford—traits that we booksellers find piquant and most endearing—but the buying of books as though they were desirable objects when they in fact are not. I have one passingly odd psychoanalytic customer who knows nothing about antiquarian books but reacts to secondhand books with the kind of aesthetic sensitivity properly belonging to antiquarian books. He buys books only to read but is fetishistic about condition: the books he buys must be nearly perfect. A bumped corner nearly throws him into a panic. He must have an anxiety attack every time he reads one of his books. I’m sure we have all had similar reactions—but to a different class of books. An example from my own experience of not too many years ago: I had a perfect copy in dust jacket of H. A. Prichard’s 1909 first book on Kant. The book, while not overly common, isn’t particularly rare—except in dust jacket. One seldom sees books from 1909 in dust jacket and almost never in a perfect jacket. Its acquisition and transient possession gave me great aesthetic pleasure until one day I noticed that someone (probably me) had by swiveling a handcart crushed the spine and created a hole in both jacket and spine. For several years I couldn’t bear to look at this formerly perfect exemplar, now forever despoiled. Eventually I had it recased and sold it, so at least I no longer have to look at it and feel distressed.
I shall mention only en passant the obvious connection between the distress thinking of or seeing the ruined Prichard induced in me and patriarchal notions of virginity and despoliation. Though I haven’t investigated the issue yet, it strikes me as quite possible that women-as-desired-objects may well be the foundation for the cultural construction of typologies of desireds.
Books as Desireds
I called my pleasure from perceiving the formerly perfect 1909 book in dust jacket "aesthetic." Why? We here approach the heart of my argument as well as, I think, the ultimate secret to desirability. Within collectordom books qua desireds are concrete universals, by which I mean that collectors experience the abstract features of books, their relatednesses and class memberships, through their appearance as physical beings. It is precisely this that induces tremendous pleasure. In order to explain why I need to tell you both something about how books are perceived as belonging to valuational hierarchies and how emotion and affect work.
Books exist within a complex nexus of class memberships. To label a book "literary" or "psychoanalytic" or "medical" is already to have said a great deal about it, for one has labeled the supervenient category within which the book is construed to exist qua text. Such an attribute is a universal. Calling a book "literary" posits a universal attribute in the same, or at least a closely similar, way as describing it as being "red" or "blue." A great deal of what we know about book-forms arises from their possession of such universal attributes. It is the objective (that is, consensually validatable) possession of such attributes that renders books potential desireds—objects that we wish to possess and have in our presence on demand, whenever we so will it. I shall not explore here the very complicated set of relations of books to each other by dint of class memberships and to persons, each sortable into hierarchies of desirers and desired objects connected to each other in various ways, for it would take too long and lead us too far astray. For this evening’s talk I need note only that most of what we perceive an individual book to be reduces to a set of universal attributes.
But I’ve already said that book-forms are amazingly different, almost no matter how closely related they are. A contradiction? No, for what makes books unique or nearly so is the precise concatenation of universals, the conjunction of which a particular book-form expresses. It is in fact the pattern of universals we ascribe to book-forms (including facts of ownership and condition) that differentiates them to the telling eye. Thus, to know one book in its particularity requires that one already know much about books in general. To know one book in its particularity is to know something, in a faint sense, about all books, is to know at least a fair amount about many other books connected to the one book because of the shared universal attributes.
Books and Emotion
We are evolutionarily programmed to react to the world through affect and emotion. For most creatures it is vital to know three characteristics about objects in the environment: Can I eat it? Can it eat me? Can it injure me? Hifalutin’ creatures with lots of extra brain capacity like humans (and probably cetaceans and elephants) have the ability to represent the world conceptually, to build mental models and maps. Most creatures, including certainly most of our phylogenetic ancestors, cannot do so—they just don’t have the neural equipment. So how do they cope with this who can eat or hurt whom problem, certainly a serious issue for, say, worms or rodents? Through affects and emotions, which I regard as the biologically earliest kind of cognition. Or, I should add, through the prototypes for what would become affect and, later, emotion. Affects allow the experiencer to make instantaneous, global judgements about the goodness or badness of classes of objects. Affects happen to one without one’s willing them. They globally dispose the experiencing individual—worm as well as human—to feeling good or bad. Things that make one feel good—originally probably things you can eat—induce the perceiving individual to move towards them; things that make the percipient feel badly induce either immobility or flight, the former being a way of hiding from the bad guys by becoming invisible. Such global feelings do not have objects. As Spinoza so well understood, the experiencer suffers them, is involuntarily affected by them—thus affects, from Latin affectus, to be affected or touched.
Emotions, on the other hand, do have objects, and thus a kind of outer-oriented gradient. Most—perhaps all—affects have corresponding emotions. Rage is an example of an affect, while its corresponding emotion is hate. Joy is an affect, love an emotion. Disgust, which is probably what I felt whenever I glanced at the despoiled 1909 Prichard book, is an affect, contempt its corresponding emotion.
Affects are judgments, expressions of a relation between the perceiving individual and its world. But they are very different kinds of judgments than those resulting from typical cognitive processes such as deduction, induction, and abduction. In cognitive judgments concepts are related through the rules of logic as expressed through a conventional system for manipulating signs, whether it be the syntax of a natural language or mathematics. Thus, reality is mediated through abstract representations. With affects perceivers experience directly through their bodies a connection between themselves as unitary organisms and categories of experience. Since a worm has no neural equipment to speak of, it is useless for it to learn about particulars that it can eat or that can eat or harm it. Rather, it must learn how to recognize categories, kinds, universals. If most Xes are good (edible, say), then it only needs to know how to recognize Xes in its environment (that is, members of the class ‘X’). Ditto with all Y-es that are bad. These are the full equivalent of cognitive judgements made by far more sophisticated creatures (like us), but made more parsimoniously and efficiently. I can’t, of course, say anything about the subjective experience, if any, of worms, but I can say that we humans do something quite similar. In short, affects put us in direct, unmediated relationship with universals.
Books and book-forms can both induce joy, a blissful state sans object, while books and book-forms can—in quite different ways—be loved. Love requires an object, while joy cannot have an object, for it is an intransitive feeling-state. Languages express the relationship between affect and emotion in different and quite enlightening ways. Indo-European languages often express affect by putting the experiencer into a non-nominative grammatical case. German and the Romance languages typically put the experiencer in the dative in clauses or sentences referring to subjective sensation and feeling -- he or she is not the agent but the patient or, in Spinoza’s sense, sufferer, the one to or for whom something happens. English, now virtually without a dative, occasionally puts the experiencer in the accusative case as in "X makes me feel good," but does so less easily and frequently. Such modes of expression are, I think, clearly modelled on the shared human experience of subjectless and objectless affect, on the notion of feeling as something that just happens to one rather than as something that one initiates. It is the zen of syntax, the dative of fake politesse.
I said both that affects put the experiencer in relation to universals and that, as Indo-European grammar strongly suggests, they have no objects. The universals—the classes or categories being related to—are the subjects while the experiencers are the indirect, dative rather than accusative objects.
Affects are evolutionarily older while emotions are a kind of later affective fine tuning requiring more sophisticated neurophysiological apparatus and having clear social and communicative functions as well. They are often closely connected: objects (persons as well as things) that induce joy or pleasure in us are the very objects we tend to love. Persons can love you back, while things such as books cannot. But what books can do is through their possession of the appropriate attributes induce positive affects in perceivers. Which, of course, makes one want to be in their presence so one can have the good feelings. Books also, unlike people, have the delightful inability to reject one’s love. Books utterly signify human beings, without whom they can neither exist nor mean anything.
Books as Concrete Universals
It is our sensory experience of books that makes them concrete universals. Concrete because we know them through the senses (and all collectors know how important touch and smell are, though the latter is rarely discussed in the literature about book-collecting) and universals because what it is that we know is actually abstract. In aesthetic pleasure we experience a book-form as an individual being-in-the-world irreducible to any subsets of attributes—in other words as something like a person with its own right to be in the world, with its own integrity and dignity and uniqueness independent of us. This is—I can tell you as someone who does it all the time—intensely and repeatedly pleasurable. It is, I believe, identical with or closely similar to the rapture we can experience seeing a painting or hearing music. As with paintings, simulacra, copies, reproductions—being entirely different objects—simply cannot induce the same affective and emotional states. Though it is beyond the ambit of my discussion, I can mention that music differs fundamentally from visuospatial aesthetic objects, for it occurs in time rather than space. Thus, in music there are no copies—I refer here to musical performances not to manuscripts and printed texts, which of course occur in space --, only presentations, each to be judged on its own merits.
One might at this point counter that surely a good-enough copy could produce the effect identical to that of the original. To which I should answer that it could do so only so long as one did not know it was a copy, for that knowledge is itself a defining attribute for the being of the perceived object. I have defined aesthetic objects as conjunctions or unions of universals—being-a-copy counts as a pretty important universal characteristic, one that definitively changes the nature of the object.
It is just here, with the issue of aesthetic pleasure derived from the presence of book-forms, that reductive psychological analyses such as the psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger’s in his 1994 Collecting: An Unruly Passion completely miss the point. Analyses like Muensterberger’s, which reduce collecting to something that it is not, fail—and must fail—to comprehend the entirely adult-level pleasures entailed by collecting. Yes, arrays of collectible desireds may palliate infantile object-loss (in the psychoanalytic sense), but the pleasures adults experience from collecting are not the same as those that children experience from their relation to desired primary objects. The network of knowledge defining both the realm of the desireds and the relation of the desirer to the desireds occurs in childhood only in inchoate form. That said, I still much recommend Muensterberger’s book as by far the best description of the pathological aspects of "nativist" collecting. But you’d never divine from his book that collecting is a normal, regular part of human experience, for he emphasizes only the bizarre end of the collecting spectrum. I don’t believe I’ve encountered any collectors who call to mind the extreme psychopathologies of Sir Thomas Phillipps and Balzac, two star pathobiographies in Muensterberger’s book.
Firstly—and I think all-importantly—the adult collector-desirer profoundly comprehends the distinction between him- or herself and his or her desired. The desirer perceives desired objects as beings separate from himself, with the full right to exist as enduring material beings quite apart from the existence of the desirer. The desire is subjective but the desirability and being of the coveted object is objective, for qua desired it is defined by the possibility that other human beings may also find it desirable -- by which, of course, I mean that the desire of any one individual exists within a matrix of social mores, eine Gemeinschaft, a community of desirers and desireds consensually defined. It is the situating of the desirer within such a community that marks desire as objective and subject to socially defined rules.
The adult desirer-collector stands in a kind of humility before coveted objects, which possess the dignity of beings with a right to exist quite apart from his or her own existence and desire for them. This is the root of the exquisite aesthetic pleasure folks like us feel in the presence of such objects. The pleasure is certainly subjective and individual but the cause of it is not. The objects that induce aesthetic pleasure in us do not need us as individual desirers in order to deserve to be, though they may need us to explain why they are worthwhile beings in their own right. To collect rationally means to respect the dignity of the desireds. One covets them because they are covetable. By coveting one participates in an axiological universe of obective valuation. Not just objects are ordered and orderly but oneself, as one who desires them, is ordered and orderly as well.
As I’ve said, qua desired objects, book-forms are concrete universals, objects that, by dint of being what they are, exemplify the classes to which they are consensually construed to belong. To put it another way, they denote the truth of their being just by existing. At this level of abstract analysis paintings, books, buildings, campaign posters, sheet music all have the same kind of being, so long as they are construed as desireds. One must, of course, know a great deal about the object domains in which any particular object exists in order even to begin to appreciate the dignity of its being as an object-in-the-world.
It was in 1976 that I learned that books were actually concrete universals. Since I think the tale has both charm and heuristic value, I’ll share it with you. At the time we lived in Baltimore on University Parkway around the corner from my old shop on Greenmount Avenue. In the entrance foyer we had a breakfront, which I naturally used as—what else—a bookcase, on the bottom shelf of which I had a set of the 14th edition of the Britannica, fairly heavy quarto volumes. The door to the breakfront was open and several guests and I were sitting in the living room, perhaps 20 feet from the breakfront bookcase. My youngest daughter, then a toddler about a year and a half old, walked over to the bookcase, pulled out one of the Britannica volumes, and trundled over to me with it, saying as she handed it to me "Book, daddy." I realized instantly in one of those all-too-rare aperçus that the underlying sentence she was expressing was: "Daddy, this object is an instance of the class ‘books.’" "Book" to her did not name a thing, a particular, though to us stupid adults it seemed to do so. At 18 months of age it was the highest level class that she was recognizing—not an individual book-form in its particularity and individuality but simply the class itself. Assuming she developed as a normally functioning member of our society, she would spend many years learning to subdivide the category into finer and finer subclasses. For Reetta at 18 months there were no "literary" or "medical" books or even "children’s" and "adult" books, nor "English" and "Spanish" books, nor "rare books" and "reading copies"—all these were distinctions to be learned later, if at all. It was the high level class "books" that she perceived by identifying one of its members. In a flash of insight I realized that barely verbal children relate to particulars in much the same way as worms.
When I said earlier that books reeked of humanity, I meant not that they smell like us but that their existence entails humans: as creators, producers, authors, readers, aesthetic evaluators. Like works of art, book-forms exist entirely within the world of culture. As material artifacts they imply the society that produced them and encode implicitly its aesthetic canon along with much technical and technological knowledge. As presentations of texts they imply a given society’s entire cognitive universe. From any particular book-form one can potentially reconstruct much of the culture that produced it. Though book-forms rarely look alike, they do have family resemblances. French books from the 1830s, say, have a style of their own such that one can pretty reasonably date a book from that period even if it bears no date. Just so with American books from the 1920s, German books from the teens, and so on. What makes for these differences in appearance are the myriad factors I’ve already alluded to: factors of production, available and favored materials for binding, typography, aesthetic notions about what makes for visually pleasing forms, and so on. Though no one of these attributes suffices to typify a book-form within a country and period, in conjunction they do so regularly and predictably.
Books as Members of Classes
Each book-form, in addition to all the other classes it belongs to, which as a set define its objectal being, belongs to the class of material objects produced as intended equivalent objects, meant to be construed by readers as identical. I refer here, of course, to editions and printings. Barring the ever-present possiblity of production defects in printing and binding, the book-forms at birth are perfect and as close to identical siblings as it is possible to be. So soon as they are thrown into the world, they begin acquiring histories. They get used and abused, rebound, highlighted, thrown at caterwauling cats, waterstained. even read or collected. What we most covet within the realm of antiquarian bookdom, wherein books are always comprehended as individuals (which, please remember, mean concrete universals), is either the perfect exemplar of that original birth-class or a significant association copy. Best, of course, is an object that is simultaneously both—the Holy Grail of book collecting. One never forgets missing such exemplary books. Around 1974, only several years after I had first started dealing in psychoanalytic books, I tried to buy from Walter Alicke in Lichtenstein a perfect, unopened copy in original wrappers of Freud’s Traumdeutung inscribed to Jung—a perfect example of a perfect example. Since he had drastically underpriced it (the equivalent of about $3,000 in Swiss Francs), I naturally didn’t get it. Those of you familiar with Alicke’s catalogs will know that this must be one of the few times in his illustrious bookselling career that he underpriced a book. The reason, by the way, that Jung’s copy was perfect—how, after all, could he not have read the book? -- was, as I knew, that Freud had sent him this copy after they had met. Jung already owned his own copy, so presumably just put this one on the shelf without bothering to bind it.
So, if we have learned to play the game by the proper rules, we are driven to acquire perfect and association copies. I should say a few words about the latter. The first thing to say about association copies is that they create new connections. By dint of their very existence they create knowledge about the world that we didn’t have before. One might guess that X must have given a copy to Y or that Z must have owned a copy of a particular book, but lacking an actual copy, one simply can’t be sure. Secondly, the physical object that through its appearance in the world signifies the connection both represents and presents the union of donor and donee. It is that most coveted of universals: a class with (probably) only one member and, thus, the most perfect form of concrete universal in bookdom. There can, after all, be multiple perfect exemplars in original condition of a book, but there will most likely be only one copy that X gave to Y or that Z owned, though I know of a few instances of multiple presentations by an author to the same recipient. Even in those cases the actual presentation inscriptions usually differ and the physical book-forms inevitably differ with respect to accidents of condition, binding, etc.
Now, classes with only one or just a small number of members differ fundamentally from classes with indefinitely many members, such as those named by terms such as "book" or "table." Thinly populated classes (logically, classes with limited extension) are typically those to which we give proper names like "Susan" or "Stuttgart." Texts, of course, are such objects; and so we know them by proper names like "Moby Dick" or "The Interpretation of Dreams." Though we give the name of the text-class to the physical objects bearing the text denominated by the name, book-forms actually belong to common name classes, for, though there is a finite limit to the the number of copies produced within any printing, there is no logical limit to the number of different editions, printings, translations of a text that can be produced. Association copies promote book-forms from common-name classes to proper name classes—that is, they leap into the realm of individuality, approaching a kind of personhood.
Then there are all the books we don’t collect, by which I don’t mean books outside our own collecting interests, but rather books within the domain of our interest and collecting competence that we deem undesirable—the shiftless creatures we barely notice in bookshops. In a way what we don’t want defines what we do want. What is it we don’t want and why? We don’t want the common. Books that are ubiquitous bore us. The only "rush" they provide is in the speed with which we move away from them. Where book-forms with interesting attributes have the capacity to delight us whenever our eyes glance at them, or even when we just think about them, the common books elicit not a glimmer of affect or emotion. In a shop or at a book sale, for example, I don’t really "see" such books. My eye scans shelves without anything really registering in consciousness until I spot something different or a book worth looking at. If you asked me what other books I had seen, I usually wouldn’t know.
Secondly, books in bad condition—a relative notion. of course—induce in us feelings of displeasure. Since it is the state of aesthetic pleasance we seek, we avoid these too. The more desirable the book would otherwise have been, the more distressing it becomes in poor condition. All the attributes that move a book away from its original condition tend to make us want to move away from the book, the major exception to this rule being truly fine or interesting bindings and association copies, either of which transforms the objects into a different kind.
Thirdly, the pseudo-fancy tends to induce displeasure. Books like the actually mass-produced leather-bound editions of classics, designed to provide the appearance of collectable books for those who know nothing about collecting, are a kind of pretend-collectable. Even so, there can be reasons for collectors buying them. For instance, when I was collecting Freud in English I bought the Franklin Press leatherbound edition of Freud’s Basic Works. It belonged in my collection, since I was aiming for an assemblage of one instance of every variant of each incarnation in English of a Freud text in book-form. Such books themselves are rarely interesting to collectors except as part of an assemblage where the whole has a significance separate from its constituent parts. With the passage of enough time, of course, such pseudo-fancies can themselves become interesting and collected, for they too encode information about the culture that produced and bought them. I think here, for example of the ½ leather Darwins published by Appleton in the 1890s, which are, I think, on the verge of being collected objects in their own right.
Fourthly, classes of books that simply don’t at a given time and place interest anybody, such as—to pick an example off the top of my head—recent textbooks in any field. From this class of undesirables, however, may come future domains of collectable books—after all, William James’s Principles of Psychology, still the greatest psychological work authored by an American, started life as a textbook. Name the collecting field and there was a time when no one collected the books. Any area is potentially collectable: it doesn’t take much to stimulate interest. The publication of one or more bibliographies, an auction that gets some attention, shifting of academic attention—any can stimulate collecting interest where before there was none.
These categories of undesirable books provide the ground from which the desirables emerge as figure. They are actually quite necessary for collecting, for it is only in comparison to them that desirable books are valued. In order to have "good" books we need "bad" books, though for the reasons I’ve just outlined we don’t want to be around them and we certainly don’t want to be surrounded by them.
I trust I haven’t overly bored you this evening. The phenomenology and psychology of collecting are almost entirely unexplored territories. The literature about which I know—and there isn’t much—strikes me as largely junk and not very useful for comprehending collecting. Why that should be the case is itself an interesting question—after all a lot of smart people collect. My best guess as to why collecting in general and book collecting in particular have remained so uncomprehended is this: the only people interested in it are the people who do it and the people who do it are usually entirely uninterested in exploring why. Firstly, they are busy deriving all the satisfactions involved from actually collecting, and, secondly, they would rather not destroy the romance of collecting. As a prime instance of the latter point, Freud—a passionate collector of antiquarian figurines and a less passionate collector of books—wrote, so far as I know, not a word about collecting. Though I shouldn’t think my talk will dissuade anyone from collecting, I do hope that I’ve helped you to understand some of the cognitive and emotional patterns expressed through book-collecting, that—to use terms made famous by Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 Concept of Mind—I’ve succeeded in converting some formerly implicit "knowledge-how" into a more explicit "knowledge-that."
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