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 have lived. When I was a child I would intricately arrange objects along the shelves and ledges of my bedroom and curate new arrangements every few weeks as if I worked in a museum—the Bonnebell diamond lip glosses, Claire’s accessories and tchotchkes, Sailor Moon cards, seashells, Madeleine L’Engle and Kit Pearson novels, post cards, Aqua CDs, and other assorted items were specimens of utmost importance.
A home is not a home, I believe, without a few book piles waiting to be read, or curated to remind you of certain things such as memories, or people you have met, or important characters that teach you something about the world and yourself. 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 helplessly 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.
Sometimes it seems as though we are hoarders of information in the digital age. 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 our activities that are not online. We are bombarded with news stories every few seconds, or information rather than news, so much so that it is difficult for many people to distinguish fact from fiction, sense from nonsense.
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, and inadequate access to information is a huge barrier for wellness, education—and online communities of people can combat loneliness, or the feeling of isolation, or the feeling of being a freak (because the Internet has shown us that we are all freaky)—but then communities of like-minded people are sometimes prejudiced, or spread hate, or 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.
In pursuit of books while traveling, I stroll 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 downtown; sometimes just in time to rescue them before it rains. Otherwise, I spend far too long 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).
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; there are virtual cities you can only wander by staring at the screen. 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 a bit 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.
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.
Plus, there is something nice about showing off your collections and aesthetic choices to a friend, like wearing a funny cute bright 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? 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. 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; they are good luck, they are placebos, and they are talismans.
Collections also leave us wanting more—they are never complete. 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.
Objects are a disguise, another layer of performance we shroud ourselves in like a cozy protective blanket; 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.
However, 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 of course, we are more than our objects, and objects sometimes give us a false sense of security, purpose, or power, and we often fall into the trap of consumerism, capitalism, 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, and I would not give this up for anything. My collection of books also offers me the security, or illusion, of remembering who I am, a defense against forgetfulness and the vanishing of important memories. Books offer a reliable future and adventures; I can’t possibly die soon, because I have entirely too much to read.
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 your neighbor’s garbage or in a box in the back of your 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. 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, Diane Arbus’s An Aperture Monograph, and Pablo Holmberg’S Eden are current talismans in my living room within view to remind me: to be happy with my lot (there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in as Leonard Cohen sang), to not be afraid of ageing (because I get to be blunt and not have to worry about being sweet and looking pretty and young), to be kind to myself and confront my demons and flaws, to try to be sympathetic and 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
Hag Head by Susan Musgrave and Carol Evans (1989); a Ten Editions find
The Ghost–Eye Tree by Bill Martin, John Archambault, Ted Rand (1988); a Ten Editions find that I remember vividly from childhood
Anna and the Echo-Catcher by Adam John Munthe and Elizabeth Falconer (1981); I purchased at Sellers & Newel in Toronto
The Old Lady Who Ate People: Frightening Stories by Francisco Hinojosa and Leonel Macie (1984); a Ten Editions find
Pink Lemonade by Henrietta Ten Harmsel (1992); this whimsical and vibrant beauty was a Ten Editions find
Garbage Delight (1977)/Alligator Pie (1974); I’ve had these since childhood
Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak (1989); Red River Books
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.
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 Night the City Sang by Peter Desbarats (1977); I do not celebrate Christmas, but it’s gorgeous!
Nicholas Knock and Other People by Dennis Lee (1976); this one I found on a sidewalk in Toronto down my street!
The Thief and the Blue Rose by Ursula Schaeffler (1967); this was given to me by a friend
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
*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!