Collecting with a Purpose: Creating a Book Collection

Recently I came across a notice for the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize for “young female book collectors.” According to the rules, collections could “include books, manuscripts, and ephemera.” Theme, author, illustrator, printing technique, and binding style were suggested as possible ways to organize collections. However, a collector could organize her collection anyway she pleased. The idea is to present a collection organized around a clearly articulated principle. Collections will be judged on the collectors’ “originality and success in illuminating their chosen subjects” rather than on the size or monetary value of the collection. The prize aims to reward “creativity, coherence, and bibliographic rigor.”

My first thought upon discovering this contest was, “I have books; I should enter this contest!” Alas, further reading revealed this contest was not for me. First, contestants must be under age 30, which disqualifies me. Second, the prize appears to be aimed at encouraging women to participate in the rare book trade. That is wonderful, but I do not aspire to collect rare books. Given a million dollars to buy books, I’d spend it all on paperbacks. Maybe I’d get a few hardbacks, but only ones with beautiful pictures or illustrations. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate rare books. I do. I appreciate them the way I appreciate art in museums. I’m grateful they exist and will occasionally visit and gaze at them in awe. But ultimately I want to be able to pick up a book, turn the pages, and stuff it in my bag if necessary.

Notwithstanding my ineligibility for the contest or lack of interest in rare books, this prize made me curious about book collecting. I had questions. How do you do it? Why do it? What transforms a pile of books into a collection? Can non-rare books form a collection? It was time to do a little research.

Collection Is Not another Term for Library

The first thing I learned is that a personal library is not the same as a book collection. A personal library often includes an assortment of books acquired in all sorts of ways for a variety of reasons. My personal library is a prime example. Some books began as required texts for school and stayed even after school ended. A few arrived as gifts while others are childhood favorites. Some books serve partly as souvenirs. (I couldn’t leave the Seattle Mystery Bookshop without a mystery.) I purchased several books because I wanted to learn something – how to speak French, run a marathon, and better manage my finances. Of course most books I bought simply because they sounded interesting. While I organize my library around genres, themes, and other ideas, there is no overarching purpose or theme uniting my library as a whole. Therefore, my personal library is not a collection.

A book collection, in contrast, evidences a collector’s passion about a specific topic. It focuses on a specific type of book and sometimes a particular quality of  book. Every item in the collection is there for a reason. It is easy to build a personal library over time. Many of us build libraries without even thinking about it. It takes much more conscious effort to create a collection.

Book Collecting and Satisfying One’s Intellectual Curiosity

Creating a book collection begins with picking a topic. The narrower the topic the greater the likelihood of success, not only in terms of being able to acquire the desired books but also in having a collection truly reflect the chosen topic. So instead of trying to find every book about the American Civil War, a collector might focus on a specific battle or accounts of nurses during the war. I believe a narrower focus also makes the collection stand out as unique and special.

For a chance to win the Honey & Wax prize contestants must write an essay describing the purpose, history, and ultimate ambition of the collection. They must also prepare a bibliography of twenty to fifty items, each with a brief description. It is this part of book collecting – researching a topic and documenting the process and the results – that most appeals to my inner student. For the obsessive, and who isn’t obsessed with something, collecting is like sliding down a rabbit hole as one thoroughly investigates a topic. In the end, you have something to show for it besides being really good at answering trivia questions.

Book collecting is not unlike creating a well curated reading list, only with actual books instead of simply a list of suggestions. Although to be honest, I’d be pretty happy just having the list. A collection does more than offer a selection of books to read, it tells a story the collector believes is worth telling. Creating a collection involves makes choices – the kind of collection, what to include and exclude. With each choice a collector is editing the story, deciding what to illuminate and what to de-emphasize. A collection focused on nurses’ experiences during the American Civil War is not the typical story one gets about the war. Such a collection gives the collector a chance to explain why that viewpoint is unique, important, and how it contributes to the larger story of the war and American history.

Starting My Own Collection

Years ago I started reading (and buying) old mysteries, mostly those written by Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner. Stout and Gardner wrote for the masses so it seemed right to read their novels in the format that would have been most affordable at the time. Learning about book collection has inspired me to develop this little library into a meaningful collection.

I still have little interest in purchasing expensive rare books, especially if it means buying hardcovers. Reading about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin’s cases or Perry Mason’s courtroom dramas in the pages of a pristine hardback just wouldn’t evoke the same mood as a slim paperback. As I delve more into this topic, I am learning more about the history of mass market paperbacks and their predecessors – the dime novel and penny dreadful. In the end, I hope to have a beautiful collection of old mysteries, personally curated by and for me. It is likely this potential collection will never be worth much monetarily. That’s okay. I am having fun researching and creating it.

If you are interested in entering the Honey & Wax Book Collecting contest look here for more information. The deadline to enter is July 15, 2017. If you’re interested in learning about book collecting and buying rare books, AbeBooks has an excellent set of guides here.

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