My wife and I were together for six years before I would agree to combine our record collections. I was convinced that the composition and arrangement of my music library was its own narrative, and that filing, say, her Flaming Lips next to my Flamin' Groovies would corrupt the collection's totemic, diarylike history. That kind of anal-retentive kookiness is small potatoes, though, compared to the really obsessive behavior described in Philipp Blom's To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting. Along with famously prodigal hoarders such as William Randolph Hearst, Blom profiles lesser-known collectors such as 19th-century bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps, whose home, money, and time were consumed by the pursuit of "one copy of every book in the world." At Phillipps's death, the Bibliotheca Phillippica is estimated to have included 77,000 books and manuscripts.
Phillipps is one of several noteworthy hoarders touched on in Blom's short volume, which also traces the collector's transformation from the Renaissance through the present. Renaissance collections, for example, were often absurdly catholic gatherings of curiosities--haphazard rooms crammed with the strange and the unexplained. Gradually, this tendency was inverted. Major collections--many of which evolved from private stocks to public museums--became highly ordered testaments to human knowledge and achievement. Perhaps by design, then, the first half of To Have and to Hold suffers from a curiosity-shop-like randomness. The profiles are too cursory to be probing, yet just long enough to reach a soporific tedium akin to being given a tour of your uncle's gallery of old beer cans.
The book heats up, though, as it moves through time and as Blom applies more liberal doses of commentary to his overview. He's especially engaging when examining what motivates the desire to amass items often deliberately stripped of their utilitarian value. Taking cues from psychological and philosophical thinking on the subject (especially that of Walter Benjamin, himself a dedicated book accumulator), Blom sees in collectors a lonely fantasy life that's almost autistic, and an odd, unsatisfying mixture of ancestor worship and lust for immortality. The collector's perpetual dissatisfaction, of course, isn't so different than that of the garden-variety materialist, which is probably why we tend to mock the out-of-control enthusiast: His avarice is so familiar. So buy this book, but remember, it will only make you happy for a moment. For the obsessive collector or casual consumer, in Blom's words, "only the next conquest will finally bring with it contentment."