The joy of collecting: on tangible emotions

Shelves of old leather-bound books
The most socially acceptable collection

It started, as many things do, with a coin. That first coin wasn’t even currency; it was a coin-shaped token thanking me for my participation in a Terry Fox Run at age thirteen or so. I don’t remember where the others came from, but they trickled in, qian by penny by cent, and I stuck them round my mirror, admired them, and promptly forgot they were there. I had become a collector of the worst sort — I didn’t enjoy my collection and it didn’t matter to me whether the collection stayed, left, or spontaneously burst into flame. The important thing was the act of collecting, not the collection itself.

My next collection became tarot cards, not for the spirituality, which I didn’t believe in, but for the sheer joy of holding seventy-eight separate works of art in my hand and riffling through them to see what creative associations might spring forth. You can do the same thing with a book of art reproductions or a stack of postcards, of course. I suspect most of us have the innate desire to hoard things that make us happy, our shiny treasures, our piles of weird niche interests to gloat over like little Gollums. You might collect records. Or Funko Pops. Or souvenir tea towels. You might, if you’re a reader, become slightly fanatical about obtaining just the right edition of a book with just the right cover art so that it can sit in just the right place among its fellows on the shelf. Do I lie?

From March 2020 until relatively recently, my collecting urge was driven by a desire for comfort, a hunkering down against the ongoing awfulness of everything. In the doomscrolling of the first few months of 2020, I found it difficult to concentrate on anything much at all. Like many, I turned to the most comforting of comfort reading I could find. It had to be easy and it had to soothe. It couldn’t be in any way connected with reality. This led to the purchasing of a book series I’d originally borrowed from the school library around the age of sixteen or so. There were dragons on the front and elves between the pages and the quality was…actually not that bad for a writing duo whose experience of speculative fiction seemed to be more from tabletop RPGs than actual literature. The books were out of print and the covers were an important part of the particular experience I craved. If there wasn’t a bloody big red dragon on the front and shiny golden lettering around the sides, I didn’t want it. The letters had to be embossed, dammit. The book had to be a book and not some pale digital ghost. I wanted to hold the past in my hand, tangibly.

That’s the other side to collecting, of course: connection with past versions of ourselves. We stuff our homes full of shells, pressed flowers, rocks, postcards, old photos. Solid, indirect love. There can’t be many who haven’t kept a memento of some sweet, fundamentally personal moment of feeling. And another and another until there’s a box or album or wall full of our pursuit of a similar emotion. Sometimes the search evolves, deepens, sends out roots. It becomes a full-blown collection with its own principles and aesthetic values, and often its own — joy of joys! — community.

What do you collect?

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