I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of book collecting. It is an art, I think, for it comes with its own peculiarities, rhythms and language, and one can spend a thousand years studying it and yet still somehow not quite understand the twists of fate and circumstance that bring a book into your life. I suspect that there’s such a thing as serendipitous book collecting; those days when you turn left instead of right and find a bookshop tucked away down a lane with a name you recognise from somewhere long ago, and an attic absolutely full of school stories. The stairs are never big enough in such shops, and the roof is always too low, and yet the promise of something yet to be discovered draws me in, always.
Slowness, I think, matters as well. Book collecting can be quick these days if you have the means to make it so. I could walk down into the centre of town and find a bookshop with all the titles I’ve ever dreamt of right now, and even if I had the budget to make that happen, I don’t think I would. There’s something about the chase that matters. That list that you folded up on a scrap of paper and stuffed deep inside your bag. The way it travels with you, just in case, just if there’s a bookshop that you pass and one of them might be in there.
I had one of those moments the other day. Or, to be more precise, I bought a book that I didn’t even realise I was collecting. When I first left home and went to university, I began a slim collection of ICONS books. These were an A5 series from Taschen, printed somewhere around 2000 – 2002, and I bought them intermittently from the local bookshop. I used them as part of my work and as inspiration, and sometimes I just sat and loved them. These were my introduction to the notion of a coffee table even though they were barely the size of a coffee themselves. They glowed with the promise of a world I was just discovering.
One of my favourites was – is – ART NOW. I was an art student who did not yet know what she wanted to do was art, and I still have that book. I’m looking at it now. There’s a part of it that I covered with clear plastic for some reason, but the plastic didn’t quite fit the book itself. The corner of the covers poke out in unprotected splendour. I don’t know what I was thinking but I’m so fond of it. It reminds me that I crafted with this book – that I had that thought process for some reason – that I wanted to look after it.
One of my other favourites was Atget’s Paris. I loved the dominance of the title. I didn’t know who Atget was, nor why he had a claim on Paris, but I was starting to understand story. The thickness of it, the texture of it. The way that we find it buried in the simplest of things. The way that it’s never just about words on a page. The way that story is art and art is story.
Looking back now, these books represent a period of exploration within my life. They signified that moment of otherness that I longed for, they showed me a space in the world for the kind of writing and the kind of art that I wanted to make. The sort of thing that I’d longed to do forever but had far too many teachers slap down. There is a fear, I think, in stepping beyond that which you know, and I felt that for a long time. But art is about following your journey and giving yourself the power and strength to do that. These books were my stepping stones.
And so, this week, when I came across a copy of See The World in my local charity bookshop, I did a little double take. Suddenly, I was transported back to a small bookshop in Devon and me, browsing the shelves, seeking books as my cultural anchor in the world, looking for a way to orientate myself and to find out what my next step would be. I wonder if I’m now at the point where my foot is lifting, or perhaps I’m even mid-stride with my eyes looking towards the horizon and my foot just about to graze the earth. All I know is that I’m still taking that step that began so long ago.
Life, it takes time.
And when the realisation hits, that collection you started a lifetime ago, a collection that you didn’t even realise was a collection, can suddenly become something that you want to add to and grow. Because it’s not just a fixed point in time, it’s suddenly about then and it’s about now, and everything that’s happened in between.
But this is what collections do and when you become a book collector (by the way, you never know when, you just know that you are), you become a book collector for life. You’re in it for the long haul. And your collections are never fixed nor are they precise and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re collecting until that something reveals itself to you. Sometimes you take the quick road, and sometimes you take the slow.
And maybe, perhaps, it’s all the more perfect because of that.