I collect books. I am a book collector. Or, to be fair, sometimes I think the books collect me; the two of us meeting in a specific point in time and coming to mean so much more than the book itself might have ever thought it might be. Does that make sense? I’m not sure it does, so let me try and explain a little.
I’ve always had shelves full of books, content in the knowledge that shelves were for books, and what’s more, they needed to be full of them. There was no space for book ends on my shelves, the books went all the way across and quite often up to down as well. Books were important, and they always have been.
And so that, I suppose, was the beginning.
I collect old children’s books, most specifically the work of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, but also a wide range of other people like Angela Brazil and Lorna Hill. (A brief sidebar: if you’re after an eccentric and madly beautiful children’s series about dancers fall in love with, you’ll not go far wrong with the dreamy delight that is Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells books. The first, A Dream of Sadlers Wells, is pretty much everything).
Once, I found a copy of Tom Tackles The Chalet School in Devonport, Auckland and I almost cried. It was the last book I wanted in the Chalet School series and reader, I found it on the other side of the world in a shop that my friend and I had wandered past after getting lost.
That’s the thing about book collecting, the books themselves come with stories. The moment when you lock eyes across a room, the moment when you spot a spine that you know is one you want. It becomes an art after a while, that quick little nip into a bookshop as you’re passing and that practiced scan of the shelves. The way that you can figure out the shelving system of a bookshop within thirty seconds, the way that your friends text you to let you know that they’re in a bookshop across the country and isn’t this one of the books you collect?
Being a book collector, being somebody who’ll cry quietly with Gollum-like pleasure over a new acquisition, has taught me that the power of books live in their stories. Not just the ones that are held in the pages, but the ones all around them. The author, the illustrator, the person who read it before you and wrote their name into the front cover.
The books that I collect were often given for prizes, or for Christmas and birthdays, and so you also get an element of social history with them. To Elizabeth, love from Granny and Grandad. To Susan, well done on your report. Messages from people to people, reaffirming the presence of books and the love of them. The belief that books matter and play a part in life, then, and now. Sometimes maybe there’s a little hand written note tucked away, or a pen underlining key paragraphs, and those moments make my heart sing.
Being a book collector has taught me that it’s not actually about the book itself. It’s about the people who came before me, and it’s about the people who’ll come after.
It’s about the readers.