The Reading Room

The Life of a Book Collector

My name is ‘Retro’ and I am a Book Collector….

veThere are worse addictions than book collecting, I grant you. It never prematurely ended the life of a rock star or an aspiring footballer, nor did it inspire Betty Ford to do what she did but for this blogger it is serious enough.

Books. Bloody hell, As Sir Alex Ferguson said (about football) They have been a huge part of my life for many years now. As a boy I read whenever the opportunity presented itself but in terms of book collecting it all began in the early 90s on a wet, blustery Friday morning in a Cumbrian village.

There, on the brow of a hill stood a small but very welcoming secondhand bookshop, I was cold, wet and fed up and that bookshop offered both sanctuary from the elements and escape from my current world order which, believe you me, required escaping from!

My brother had started to collect Ian Fleming before they became a straight choice between a first edition or a change of car. I liked the idea of collecting books and that particular genre but I had to find my own  author to collect, copying my brother was not an option. A bloody stupid decision in hindsight but that’s life and my luck.

So as I stood perusing the shelves of novels I saw the book above and the moment I saw the symbol I was totally hooked. Memories of Roger Moore and Ian Ogilvy came flooding back and the simplicity of the cover was, for me, spellbinding. The opening lines describing ‘The Saint’ eating lobster and antipasti in sunny Naples was too much to resist and from that moment I devoted all of my spare time to hunting for other books in not only The Saint series but everything else remotely connected to the genre. Now before literature lovers abandon me for reading Charteris, I will hasten to add that I never considered him in the same context of Greene, Waugh, Burgess et al, Far from it. I liked the covers!! Therein, dear reader, lies the problem, I am and always have been, a sucker for a good cover.

Book cover artwork is annoyingly clever, get it right and people will buy it regardless of content. I do. I have a first edition of The Happy Highwayman from The Saint series. Published in 1939 it is a highly collectible book in its glorious dust jacket but would I read it? Never! Collins Crime Club were the absolute masters of hooking idiots like me with books and accompanying artwork that begged to be bought but never read, they knocked out killer (excuse the pun) covers at an absurd rate, they demanded to be collected.

All of this began before the arrival of eBay and other online selling opportunities. The fun was in the finding, the search for that elusive gem in an antique shop, car boot sale or book fair. It really was a voyage of discovery, it would be easy to sit and regret the missed opportunities but I wouldn’t have missed that sense of naivety, the learning curve that is collecting and the joy of making a collection one’s own.

When I recall the launch of Kindle I remember thinking that it is all well and good but if this is to be the future then I feel sorry for the generations to follow who will miss out on the thrill of the chase. There is a real sense of discovery with a physical book and I wouldn’t swap those early days or my subsequent collection for anything.


2 replies »

  1. It’s a good point to raise about collectability and readability. I recently saw a first edition of Berlin Game by Len Deighton which is a vastly superior ‘spy novel’ in literary terms to anything Fleming ever wrote – it was £0.50p . . .

    Book collectors are often asked “do you read all of these?” but would we ask a philatelist if they write a lot of letters, did anybody ever buy a Paul de Lamerie candlestick so they could see better in the dark?

    A true collector lacks a rational explanation for their behaviour that would convince anybody who doesn’t suffer from the same disease . . .


    • Erich,
      A great comment thank you. Berlin Game is a singular tragedy in literary history as far as I am concerned. How it isn’t more acknowledged and collected is beyond me. You are right though, there is no rational to collecting unless you are one. If I were asked to defend book collecting I would say that a neat and interesting bookcase is a thing of beauty in the household. It’s a timeless piece of furniture if nothing else.


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