The book collector who failed

Surely any serious book collection will be enhanced by the addition of a rare, leather-bound Inuit Bible.

I started as an accumulator of books. I was a great accumulator. Book club editions of Thomas Costain, and an almost-complete 1940s National Geographic collection? Fabulous. Even as a teenager moving my books required the logistical planning of a military operation. Over time I’ve parted with enough books to easily fill a large public library.

If I had a whim to re-read that boiled egg scene in City Boy, I just plucked it from the shelf. Here was every published source about the Group of Seven. There was a whole shelf about megaliths, and a bookcase full of folklore.

Yet it began to bother me that I wasn’t a real book collector. A real collector needs a specialty. Serious collectors glazed over when I said that I picked up whatever caught my eye. Finally I decided to zero in on the core of my library, a few bookcases of nautical books.

I gathered up the Alice Walker and William Safire and Raymond Chandler, the histories of China and the ornithology collection, and my 19th century technical manuals for steam tractors and sewing machines. I either traded up through antiquarian dealers or sold things outright to finance separate purchases. Soon I had a focused collection for the first time, even though the slightest whiff of a bookstore made my self-restraint all but boil over.

Of course I didn’t part with everything. My parents gave me this copy of Bain’s Clans and Tartans of Scotland. I really can’t live without I Heard the Owl Call My Name. And there was no sense parting with all of these interesting-looking books that I bought in Poland, because one day I might learn to read Polish.

Then I began to buy the odd thing that didn’t fit at all, convinced that I would use these to trade for more relevant titles.

When Kasia was born it seemed to me that every child should have certain stories at hand while growing up. Unleashed, I gleefully scooped up nice editions of virtually every story I’ve ever enjoyed.

I was surprised to learn that even my core subject had quite elastic boundaries. Most of Samuel Eliot Morison’s books certainly fit a nautical collection, and he wrote a history of Harvard, so having a Harvard protagonist surely justified a nice edition of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Apparently I can rationalize almost anything—though I can’t quite imagine the logic behind this copy of Arthur Mee’s Nottinghamshire.

Of course I soon realized that I no longer had a collection. I had an interesting exercise in the concept of degrees of separation. I replaced the folklore shelf, paying considerably more than I’d received for those titles. Not long ago I even ended up hauling home a mouldering stack of boys’ annuals.

I’ve accepted that I am a failure as a proper book collector. I love all books too much, and I’m now at peace with the realization that a storyteller’s imagination will run unfettered. What I have, as I have always had, is a delightful, flavourful miscellany—a writer’s library.

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.