It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that sitting in a room surrounded by our book collections can be a social endeavor, but for many of us it is just that. We join local and national collecting societies; we visit other collectors and dealers; we congregate at antiquarian book fairs. My book collecting has led me to friendships all over the world and there are many books on my shelves that I treasure precisely because of a social connection.
Here’s a great example. The reasons why I would want to own a People’s Edition of Bumblebee Bogo’s Budget are deserving of a blog entry to themselves (I promise I’ll make this digression at some point). Suffice it to say that I was giving a lecture at the Houghton Library at Harvard and I was discussing the publishing history of this book. I had a copy of the first edition, but not the second, so-called “People’s Edition.” However, I had a friend in London who not only had a copy but also was coming to the meeting and agreed to bring it along.
After hearing my talk, he decided that his copy really belonged in my collection and he very generously presented it to me. It’s not a hugely valuable book, but it is devilishly hard to find if you actually want one. Needless to say I was pleased to add it to my collection and place it on the shelf next to the first edition. Before we parted ways in Boston, my friend said, “If you ever find another copy you can replace mine.”
A couple of years later I was trolling on Abe Books and happened across a copy of that same People’s Edition my friend had given me. I immediately ordered it and had it sent directly to him.
Now we both have copies of the book, but our copies are much more special to us than they would have been if we had each simply bought one for ourselves and placed it on our shelves. For each of us, our copy of this book comes with a story of friendship and a reminder of the social benefits of book collecting.
Now, it is true that other kinds of collecting come with their own social benefits, but I would suggest that what sets books apart is that the societies we create around them can extend so far beyond the collected objects. I am a member of two different Lewis Carroll Societies and while many of my fellow members, like me, joined because they were book collectors, the activities and the social interactions of those societies extend way beyond collecting Alice in Wonderland. We take trips together to places important to Carroll’s life; we discuss all aspects of Victorian Society; we learn about mathematics, logic, photography, theatre, and scores of other topics—all because we chose to start collecting a children’s book. Most importantly, we do all these things together over many years. Some of my oldest friends are fellow book collectors, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.