Thursday, January 19, 2006

Book Collecting III - Focus

As I have stated in previous posts, some authorities on collecting feel that anything short of a collection with laser-like focus on a single subject, which contributes to the scholarship and understanding of a topic, is nothing more than an 'accumulation' of objects. Collector's Progress by Wilmarth Lewis illustrates this approach in the author's pursuit of a peerless collection of material pertaining to the author Horace Walpole.

Other people feel that, while such goal-directed collecting is a worthwhile endeavor, it is pedantic to discount less focused collections. Some people gather what pleases them, without regard to focus, and have no qualms calling it a collection.

I fall somewhere in between. I have many interests, and constructing many 'small collections' of good material on several topics is my approach. I think the key to naming your accumulation a 'collection' revolves around discernment.

Discernment means choosing the best items you are aware of and can afford. As you grow as a collector, the information about what constitutes good material on a given topic matures. Knowing which works are the landmarks and canon of your chosen field comes with time. Knowing what condition is typical for those books, and their values, is acquired knowledge. What you learn in the process of collecting, through mistakes, advice, and research, and how this information guides you purchases - this is discernment. Developing a discerning eye is a side-benefit of thoughtful collecting, and the knowledge gained through the process can become as valuable as the physical collection.

What are my book collecting interests?

The fields I collect are topics which have influenced my life and thought, or those which have sparked my imagination and taught me something about the world and humanity. I call them 'small collections' because the number of items on any given topic may be small, but they are the best works on the subjects that I could identify and afford.

My small collections include:

  • 'Books on Books' and Book Collecting - You didn't think I came up with all this on my own, right?
  • Books on Numismatic art and specifically A.A. Weinman, the art-nouveau sculptor resposible for some of America's most beautiful coins - the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half.
  • Books on Naval History and the U.S. Marine Corps - An interest sparked by my time as a U.S. Marine.
  • Books by favorite authors: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jose Saramago, Patrick O'Brian and Philip K. Dick.

These may seem like pedestrian interests, and too many topics to collect, but I have tried to excercise discernment to build meaningful small collections.

Another collection I have been building for the past ten years is more obscure, larger, and closer to what purists may call a true collection. These are books by and about the early Methodist Church in America, and the O'Kelly schism of 1792. I say closer to a true collection, because it is an area that is not well travelled, and may contribute to a field of scholarship one day.

In any event, what you collect need not be dictated by the standards of others. The two keys are that you collect with passion, and that you choose your items to the best of your ability.

Will you make mistakes along the way? Purchase 'common' books, or pay too much for them? Almost certainly. But those mistakes are vital to the evolution of a collector, and the knowledge they impart is yours, and it is priceless.

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