Duck Duck Book

38 – to have and to hold
11.10.2006, 8:35 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

To have and to hold : an intimate history of collectors and collecting / Philipp Blom.
Woodstock, NY : Overlook Press, 2003.
[MCL call number: 790.132 B653t 2003; four copies, no holds]

When I was growing up, I read a classic novel of American poverty, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One piece of the book that has always stuck with me is the narrator’s story of a woman who was her neighbor. This woman had been burned severely, and one of her arms was covered with scars. Every week she went to a costume dance contest, wearing a special dress which her mother had made — the dress had one sleeve (to cover her scarred arm), which was removable. She had many different colors of satin sleeves, and changed them every week. She often won the contest. Each week, the prize was a silk parasol, and the woman saved her parasols, rolled up and never used, in a special place in her closet. The narrator explains that the luxury of having many duplicate things, nearly useless and unmistakably luxurious, filled a deep emotional need for this woman, who had spent her entire life surrounded by unbreakable poverty.

I thought, when I picked up To Have and To Hold, that it would answer some probing questions about collectors and collecting. Early modern European princes and nobles spent fortunes to obtain exotic objects from around the world, which they displayed in their private collections — is there some kind of connection between this practice and the modern-day compulsion to own every single beanie baby or an entire set of in-the-original-wrapping Star Wars action figures? Even if there is not, what is the difference between the different sorts of collectors? Are you really a collector if you only do it for a while, or do you need to spend your life consumed? What if you only collect things you can get for free, like some of the people profiled in Ted Botha’s book Mongo [reviewed in number 2]? What if you collect lots of different things, instead of focusing determinedly on tchotchkes featuring the praying hands or sets of salt and pepper shakers?

To Have and To Hold
doesn’t answer this sort of question; instead it is a detailed history of the rich and famous collectors, people who could afford to buy rare books at auction or travel the world collecting exotic plants. There is some focus on fads in rich-people collecting activity, such as the cabinets of curiosities — intricate pieces of furniture that 18th century aristocrats commissioned, with little drawers and drawers to hold their objects — but for the most part the book is a history of famous or notable collectors, and of storied collections. It is interesting, but not at all the book I was hoping for.


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