At exactly the same time, I am a snob and slightly obsessive about certain disposable goods. I have a vintage Moulton bicycle and a modern Forme road bike rather than one I could have bought in Halfords. I've used Apple Macintosh computers for 15 years despite knowing the company's as exploitative as any other, I have a Mont Blanc pen and couple of pairs of Church shoes.
But this hypocrisy pales in comparison with my major consumerist habits: collecting books and records. I used to avoid the word 'collecting' because it reminds me of butterfly-collectors, who kill the things they love, turning vital creatures into stiff decoration. But it fits. I buy books and music primarily for use, but it's true too that I also acquire them for other reasons: to complete a set, for instance, or because of their rarity value. There are books and records in my collection which frankly aren't very good, and others which I know I'll never read, read again, or listen to again. But without them, I'd feel like something was missing. At some point the thrill of finding something rare disappeared, to be replaced by the determination to complete a set: it's well known that a lot of obsessive bird watchers don't care about birds per se, they just want to complete the set. Hence too the particularly destructive nature of birds' egg collectors. The more they collect, the more rare the bird, the more important it is to get the egg until there aren't any left.
It's important to me to buy vinyl records too. Yes, they sound better and look better, but I'm pretty certain that I like them partly because I think they're cool and a minority pursuit, just like the Moulton (which looks and operates differently from 'normal' bikes). There's a cultural cachet to vinyl which will only increase as music becomes entirely divorced from physical media, whether or not the actual music is any good or not: I gain a small amount of cultural capital from my collection. Even more pointlessly, I have CD or electronic copies of a lot of it too, so holding on to the vinyl is mostly sentiment.
This makes me a better capitalist than people just buying branded goods on the high street. My books and records are what I use to define myself in a postmodernist in which the self is a performance of decentred fluidity. This means that there can never be an end point to collecting. Whereas the search for a great pair of shoes ends when I find it, there are always more records or books to collect: I'm always looking for music on the Caroline and Fierce Panda labels, for instance, whether they're any good or not: just like a kid collecting football stickers. Limited editions, side-projects, picture discs, overseas releases: all the tricks they can come up with work on me.
The first thing I do on entering someone else's house is go through their music and book collections or note the absence thereof. I assume it's what people do to me. In fact, just such an experience made me think about this. One of my friends came round to the flat for the first time, after we'd been out drinking. He drunkenly staggered round the bookshelves and then explained that as he's in his mid-fifties and therefore closer to death, he'd embarked on a purge of unread and unwanted books. He understood the performative nature of collecting, but he'd moved onto a new stage of collecting, in which mortality looms large. He started to think about whether he'd actually read these things before he died, and if not, whether they simply served as props in a performance of intellectuality. Yes, this is how we talk about things when we're drunk.
Thankfully, however, we're not alone. Plenty of interesting thinkers have considered the nature of ownership and collection. I've always considered obsessive collecting a predominantly male activity: there's not a lot of difference between tracking down the Belgian release of a Field Mice single and bagging that last bird/registration number/elusive 218 Loco serial number. I do know plenty of women who collect records and books, but don't think I've ever seen a female trainspotter or twitcher.
Walter Benjamin's essay 'Unpacking My Library' (1931) is about how he feels while he unboxes his enormous book haul after moving house. Faced with the evidence of his habit, he tries to explain what it feels like to be a collector. To him, his library is a 'fragments, stored against my ruin' as TS Eliot wrote in another context. The books are the past, and they are an attempt to establish some kind of order in a disordered universe. Yet the collection is also chaotic: nobody can acquire every book, or perfectly order those s/he has. It's bound to be partial and incomplete – even the Catalogue must be incomplete, unless it includes itself as a constituent (and that's a philosophical conundrum I'm going to leave well alone) and it's quickly outdated.
Benjamin talks of the 'enchantment' of collecting: finding the right things, putting them into their rightful order and place. But he also talks of the 'thrill of acquisition' and of ownership – it's a way of imposing the Will on the world in a small way, I suppose. Everything that makes up the collected object has a teleology, a destiny, and for that collector, it's becoming owned by that individual: 'the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him, with his collection'. This is true of course for me: my collection is unique because the things I've collected will never exist side-by-side anywhere else, ever. Each collection reinterprets the world through the items collected, or as Benjamin puts it, 'renews' the world in the same way that children renew the world by painstakingly acquiring new skills.
Benjamin has a head start of course: he points out that the best way to acquire books, particularly the ones that should exist but don't, is to write them. For the rest of us, getting hold of others' work will have to do. He also admires the collector who borrows books and never returns them: it's a kind of heroic rejection of legal and social claims of ownership, particularly if he doesn't actually read them. This is because this person gets to the heart of the collecting psyche: use is irrelevant to the collector. What does the train spotter do with his list of numbers? Nothing: it's the wrong question to ask. Possessing them is what's important. Not that it's put that baldly: Benjamin phrases it rather more delicately:
To the book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
Finally, Benjamin turns to the collector's unwilling purchase of books. If one must actually buy them, then there are special ways to do so. It's the same for me with books and records. I'd hate it if the rare vinyl I wanted was easily acquired, in a shop or online place. The hunting is the key part: wandering away from the high street to some dingy back room; having the patience to go through an unpromising, disorganised box; checking the serial numbers in case it's the wrong one; braving the scorn of the patronising shopkeeper; abrading one's fingers on the protective sleeve; clutching your find tight lest the hunter next to you pounces on the pile that you think signifies choices and he thinks is fair game. Disappointments too are part of the experience, reminding you that chasing acquisitions requires both emotional highs and lows. So is the judicious disbursement of money, and the saving thereof. What could be more boring than seeing what you want and simply having the cash to hand to buy it? It's having to leave things behind that makes what you do buy seem special. I've heard of people cornering the market in things like rare blues records and it sickens me: just because they can afford to, they've grabbed everything that's out there. There should be some kind of spiritual test before they're allowed to own anything (and I would definitely) ban 'investors' and corporations from owning Stradivarius instruments and paintings destined for the vaults. I might not play my C-Pij 7" very often but at least I appreciate it without caring about what it might be worth one day.
Finally, Benjamin turns to the collection-as-time-machine. Every time he picks up a book he remembers where he got it, what he was like then, the places in which he read them. The text is irrelevant by this stage: the book as object is the equivalent of Proust's madeleine. The same is true of my books and records. It would be, in a sense, dishonest to dispose of those I no longer enjoy because they were once enjoyed by that older version of me. I'm stuck with him, or rather don't want to repudiate his dreadful taste in lo-fi, sword-and-sorcery epics or ultra-leftist propaganda papers. I might not be able to face them again, but I don't want to pretend they never played a part in making me me.
Enough. Tomorrow, part 2: collecting, death and Baudrillard.