I include the topic of competition in our ongoing discussion of why we collect books (see previous blogs in July and August 2013) not because I think it is a good reason to collect, but because I recognize that, for some, it is a motivating factor. On the occasion of the beginning of the Winter Olympics, when the idea of competition is foremost in the minds of many, it seems a good idea to offer a few thoughts on the book collector as competitor.
There is no doubt that, for some, the joy of acquiring a book comes in knowing that someone else doesn’t have it. We compare our collections to published lists and to our private knowledge of others’ collections. (I often see, for instance, a dealer listing a book as “Not in Lovett,” meaning it is not in the published catalogue of my collection. The dealer, of course, fails to mention that the catalogue was published in 1990 and that I have added a few items in the ensuing 24 years). I have watched rival collectors engage in what can be described as a dual when together at a literary conference. One shows that he has the first edition in the rare red binding, the other shows the even rarer green binding, and so on.
Now, there is nothing wrong with a little friendly competition, but I would posit that book collectors (and perhaps all collectors) can be roughly divided into two categories: those who see collecting a competition and those who see it as an opportunity for cooperation. I have written before about the wonderful friends I have met through the pursuit of book collecting, and my relationship with many of those friends comes because we see ourselves involved in a mutual endeavor.
Recently I discovered that I had some extra copies of the tickets to the 1932 event at which Alice Hargreaves (the 80-year-old woman who, when a little girl, had been Lewis Carroll’s muse in telling the story of Alice in Wonderland) appeared at Columbia University. I could have rejoiced that I had essentially cornered the market for this rare piece of ephemera—that would have been a victory for the competitor. But it would have been a brief moment of celebration rendered hollow when I placed those blue tickets back into a box and put them away. For me, the natural reaction was to ask: who else would appreciate having one of these in his or her collection? So far I’ve given away one, and it brought great delight to the recipient. Instead of the brief joy that might have come with squirreling them away from others, I experienced the more lasting happiness of knowing I had added to a friend’s collection. The other tickets will no doubt follow a similar path, and perhaps commemorate special visits to or from fellow collectors.
So, as the Olympics get underway, perhaps we as book collectors can learn a lesson from the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierrie de Coubertin, who said, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking part.” In taking part in book collecting, may we seek not to win, but, in a spirit of true sportsmanship, to encourage others in the pursuit that we love.