On collecting books, and how objects can haunt us and piece us together


I have been a collector for a very long time, taking pleasure in the way objects are arranged around me in the various rooms of houses and apartments where I lived. When I was a kid, I would intricately arrange objects along the shelves and ledges of my bedroom and curate new arrangements every few weeks as if my bedroom was a museum—the Bonnebell diamond Lip Smackers, airport/dollar store souvenirs from my eccentric Great Uncle Willy, Sailor Moon cards, seashells, Madeleine L’Engle and Kit Pearson novels, post cards, Aqua CDs, and other assorted items were extremely important to display.

My home is where there are a few book piles waiting to be read, or curated to remind me of certain memories, feelings, thoughts, inspirations, people I have met, or important characters. My old apartments were likely fire hazards, with their combination of book piles, oil lamps, candles, and for a few years, my roommate’s chubby unpredictable demon-possessed cuddly bitey mollycoddled cat named Spaz.

Books remind me of where I have been and where I would like to go, and memories surrounding the moment of discovering the book.

I wonder if digital culture can ever offer something like the second hand book’s trace of human presence— ephemera like grocery lists, old photographs, and post cards? Is there an E-book or MP3 equivalent to the second hand? There are hidden codes online that signify human action, tracing the development of web pages and activity, but you really have to dig to decode those stories; you have to become a detective. Those little clones of  information, like the MP3 or E-book, may take their first breath at our fingertips and then be deleted forever.

It feels like we are hoarders of information in the digital age, but it is so disposable. With virtual collections, we can forget what we own. We can consume and collect far more than we can meaningfully interact with, and since we forget what we have, we gather more—and more is always shoved in our faces. This is in part thanks to ads that are sometimes creepily tailored to our online activities, and sometimes to our activities that are not online. We are bombarded with news stories every few seconds, or information rather than news.

Walter Benjamin wrote about how in the pre Internet era we already had more information and culture than one individual could digest, but it was not within a clicks reach. Quantity smothers quality sometimes (agrees the collector), and yet the abundance and globalization of information means greater accessibility. Inadequate access to information is a huge barrier for wellness and education. Online communities of people can combat loneliness, or the feeling of isolation, or the feeling of being a freak (because the Internet has also shown us that we are all freaky). But then communities of like-minded people are often prejudiced, spread hate, bully, and so on. There is so much good about the Internet, and there is so much bad, and I can go on and on and become very anxious and hide beneath my covers, or I can take a deep breath and return to a comforting topic, like my book collection.

While traveling, I spend hours browsing around used bookstores. In Toronto if you are lucky enough to live downtown and be able to walk everywhere, you can come across books gently placed on sidewalks in front of old character houses; sometimes, just in time to rescue them before it rains. Otherwise, I spend a long time looking at books at BMV (where you can disappear) and Ten Editions (one of those mythological used bookstores with ladders that slide across the shelves and piles of ephemera everywhere like in an eclectic relative’s ancient attic, that will likely close and disappear sadly any day now).

I think most people do not come across books in this wandering way anymore; instead, book purchasing has turned into a finger click on an Amazon page or other website. What will happen to those poor overlooked and abandoned creatures if the book becomes obsolete? I wonder what will happen to us? Maybe I am being hyperbolic—but there is something special about the book as a physical artifact and the way we can interact with it and see hints of other peoples’ lives and the provenance of the object. And it feels so nice in our hands. And for many types of stories, the format of e-books are still inadequate and inaccessible (like comics), although many books can potentially be made more accessible through image descriptions that are compatible with e-readers.

Digital collections are easier for me to forget; it is easier for me to accrue more and more online or digitally without meaningfully engaging with the information; because of this, everything attached to an online media, even the experience of reading an ebook or searching for and listening to music files, feels less significant, and I feel like I am somehow less. Photos lose their weight and importance.

There is something nice about showing off your collections and aesthetic choices to a friend, like wearing a funny cute outfit that speaks about who you are in a way that can be difficult to articulate otherwise. How will people know who I am—this is is a fear I sometimes have—when I can’t show off the objects I covet? Especially since I am so shy. Facebook and blogs enable us to curate our lives with online photo albums and display pages of our likes and interests, but I am always skeptical of the sincerity of this information, and most people are by now. And I constantly question my own motivations. Objects can act as mirrors, that reflect how we desire to be seen. Objects help us organize our world into a more manageable size, allow us to feel control over our environment; for me, they are good luck, and they are talismans.

Collections also leave us wanting more—they are never complete, in my experience. They give us something special to live for, including the communities, stories, and mythologies surrounding our objects. Most collectors have a constant craving for that missing piece, or if their collection is miraculously complete, they move on to the next one.

Collecting is also a history lesson, a way to connect the past to the present and in doing so find significance and meaning in objects and in life. Our archives shape our future, who we are, and one collection leads to an offshoot collection, and together they map out our identities and experiences. Books visibly and physically are filled with more history and weight than digital collections. Objects in our collections speak to each other and tell a story of their period, region, craftsmanship, and owners. Collections make me feel so small in this way, like staring up at the night sky filled with thousands of other planets and stars—because objects are ours for such a brief period of time and then they move on to a new fate. I love collectors because anyone can collect anything and find a unique value in something, which I think tells a story about who they are more than anything.

Objects are a disguise, another layer of performance and identity we shroud ourselves in like a cozy protective blanket, because we are ephemeral, not the objects. To me, ghosts are little notes and drawings in books calling out; they are stories we create and encounter that spark our imagination and haunt us so that we think about the past.

At the same time, there is something liberating in traveling, with only a novella or two, or without any of my objects, and feeling free to be anyone and let people guess about who I am. And, we are more than our objects, and objects often give us a false sense of security, purpose, or power. Who is privileged enough to collect? What do society or institutions deem valuable and who can afford these valued objects? We often fall into the trap of consumerism, capitalism, wastefulness, hermit tendencies (I am guilty of this too often), and so on—but I love the feeling of being a collector and the moment of discovery. My collection of books also offers me the security, or illusion, of remembering who I am (or who I want to be, or who I have been), a defense against forgetfulness and the vanishing of important memories. Books also offer a reliable future and adventures; I can’t die soon, because I have entirely too much to read and too many book piles surrounding me, right?

There is also something powerful about creating objects that have some sort of permanence in the world, like clay dolls or drawings, even if they end up in my neighbor’s garbage, or in a box in the back of someone’s great aunt’s closet; maybe they will mean something to someone, maybe they will provoke a mystery or fill some void of longing in someone’s life, or inspire someone else to create. I enjoyed the feeling of looking like a mad scientist when I frantically made clay dolls several years ago; my roommate would come home from work to walk in the kitchen and see cookie sheets filled with fresh clay body parts, or Styrofoam blocks with metal interiors of legs and arms sticking up—and I felt like a character in a book.


Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, several Lynda Barry books, and Pablo Holmberg’S Eden are current talismans in my living room within view to remind me of a few things: to not be afraid of ageing, to be kind to myself and others, to try to be empathetic, to embrace the absurdity that is life, and to maintain a childlike sense of playfulness.


Here are my favorites from vintage picture books in my collection. I have not been able to let go of these yet to give to my niece:

A Special Trick by Mercer Mayer (1976); a Ten Editions find

special trick 1

special trick 2

special trick 3

Hag Head by Susan Musgrave and Carol Evans (1989); a Ten Editions find

hag head 1

hag head 2

The GhostEye Tree by Bill Martin, John Archambault, Ted Rand (1988); a Ten Editions find that I remember vividly from childhood

the ghost eye tree

Anna and the Echo-Catcher by Adam John Munthe and Elizabeth Falconer (1981); I purchased at Sellers & Newel in Toronto

anna and the echo catcher 1

anna and the echo catcher 2

The Old Lady Who Ate People: Frightening Stories by Francisco Hinojosa and Leonel Macie (1984); a Ten Editions find

the old lady who ate people

Pink Lemonade by Henrietta Ten Harmsel (1992); this whimsical and vibrant beauty was a Ten Editions find

pink lemonade

Garbage Delight (1977)/Alligator Pie (1974); I’ve had these since childhood

garbage delight

alligator pie

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak (1989); Red River Books


outside over there 2

The Magic Circus by Wayne Anderson (1979); found at Red River Books in Winnipeg. I’ve seen so many instances of the artwork torn out of this book and sold online as individual prints.

magic circus 1

magic circus 2

magic circus 3

The Mouse and His Child is a picture novel by Russell Hoban first published in 1967, which I purchased at Balfour Books in Toronto; the animated film, based on the book, is terrifying and beautiful

the mouse and his child 1

The Night the City Sang by Peter Desbarats (1977); I do not celebrate Christmas, but it is gorgeous!

the night the city sang, use this one

Nicholas Knock and Other People by Dennis Lee (1976); this one I found on a sidewalk in Toronto down my street!

nicholas knock and other people

The Thief and the Blue Rose by Ursula Schaeffler (1967); this was given to me by a friend

thief and the blue rose 1

thief and the blue rose 2

On Cat Mountain by Fracoise Richard (1994); I found this one at BMV in Toronto and was immediately drawn to the textured collage-like illustrations

On Cat Mountain

*Most of the books I found at Ten Editions were between $3-$5. Also, I did not take these photos, but if there is a demand to see more of the artwork, I can take a few photos and post them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s