by Tina Wolf
It is a truth universally acknowledged that we as a species love collecting. But what is it about human nature that makes us squirrel away things? And what on earth, you may wonder, does the title of this article have to do with collecting? That last question at least is easy to answer: I collect vintage Penguin and Pelican books, those bright, orange-coloured British paperbacks that first appeared in 1935. Penguin started the great paperback revolution by making world literature available to everyone at a price of just sixpence per book, a true democratisation of reading.
Some people collect stamps, coins, bad jokes, clocks, and a myriad of other things. I asked various people at university and on social media why they liked collecting and got some very interesting answers.
But first things first: what is a collection? And what’s the difference between collecting and just accumulating stuff at random? According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary, a collection is defined as “a group of objects of one type that have been collected by one person or in one place” and “a group of objects that someone has collected as a hobby or investment.” Compared to a mere accumulation of stuff, a collection is focussed and curated, as well as being of subjective value to the collector.
To understand the reasons for collecting, one must first look at the rise of consumer society. According to business academic Russell W. Belk, one of the leading experts on consumption, consumer culture, consumer behaviour, collecting and materialism “collecting is consumption writ large. It is a perpetual pursuit of inessential luxury goods. […] And it is a sustained faith that happiness lies only an acquisition away.” (Belk, 1995, p.1) To put it simply, we like being surrounded by material possessions. Anyone who’s ever indulged in retail therapy though will know that obtaining the object of one’s desire only leads to temporary happiness and soon after, the hunt begins anew. This is a pattern that can certainly be observed in collectors’ behaviour, myself included. Collections also provide us with a means to remember the past or be a part of the inner worlds of others (in the case of paintings or poems for example). When I asked why people collect things, several people answered that “the thrill of the hunt” and the joy of finding a coveted object were the main reasons for their collecting. For most people, collecting has become an obsession and they quite happily spend large amounts of money and give up both time and living space to house their collections. We as a species are still hunter-gatherers after all, or so it seems. Some of my fellow Penguin collectors showcase truly impressive collections online, overflowing bookshelves and whole rooms full of the various seabird books, from the iconic orange triband Penguin fiction paperbacks of the 1930s/40s to blue Pelicans and eggshell-blue Penguin Modern Classics editions. Search for #vintagepenguin or #tribandtuesday on Instagram and you will get thousands of results. One collector describes their collecting as an “obsession”. They love hunting for books and discovering new authors in the process. Another, who collects mostly non-fiction Pelicans loves the visual aspects of a good cover design.
What struck me was that most people started off collecting something else in their childhood and at some point switched to book collecting or, in some cases, collect not only books and various Penguin ephemera, but also vinyl, vintage furniture and other objects. Apart from the books being perceived as beautiful in and of themselves, it’s the history of the object that fascinates their collectors, something I can definitely relate to. I love knowing I’m holding a piece of history in my hands. That battered old 1st edition from the 1940s might have been a means of escape from the realities of war, rationing, bombs, and air-raid shelters for its previous owner. When I asked one of my university professors – who I would say is an avid collector of, among other things, antique musical instruments (even though he disagrees and doesn’t see himself as a collector as such), he said something similar. He collects because he loves learning about the cultural history of an object. I his own words: “I like certain types of things because I love what they do. Because old works of art can tell us a lot about the way people saw and depicted the world in the past, because antique musical instruments give me a chance to play music pretty much as it would have been played and heard in the eighteenth century, because an antique book is so much more than the text it contains.” This I understand. Old vinyl records, vintage books, old engravings and antique musical instruments: they’re all portals into another time and space. They can tell us how people lived, what was important to them and how they saw the world.
Community and shared interests also play a big part in why people collect. It’s great to talk about your passion with like-minded people, to share exciting finds and the frustrations of fruitless searches for that one, special object that’s still missing.
So why do we collect things? Because of the satisfaction finding a rare object gives us? Because it gives us the opportunity to time-travel? Because the items we collect can be quite valuable and are a good investment? Or because of the sense of community joining a collectors’ society gives us? Yes to all of the above, I would say. But there’s also a much simpler reason: because it makes us happy! And that is reason enough to keep expanding my own” flock of seagulls”. To quote BookTuber Jess, aka “Squirrel’s Bookshelf”: “I am also too fond of creating environments of wonder and creativity, packed with objects of fascination.” Or, as said by Vsauce2, in his YouTube video about the Jefferson Burdick Collection of baseball cards at The Met.: “A nobody like me, a nobody like you, each in our own unique way has a chance to leave a lasting positive mark on the world.”
There’s nothing I need to add to that.
Author bio: Tina Wolf is a 4th-semester student of Anglophone Studies & Kommunkationswissenschaft who spends most of her free time with her nose in a book and collects vintage Penguins.
Belk, Russell W. Collecting in a Consumer Society. Routledge. 1995
Vsauce2: The Invention of Collecting