Friday, May 08, 2015

From O. Reader

Memento Mori
A few months ago I visited the home of a long-time collector and author. He had died in his late eighties, and had been a friend for many years. I was mentioned in his will as someone who should be invited to his home and be allowed to help myself to twenty of his books from his library as a gift. That was quite a surprise, an unusual bequest. The family were even more generous – take as much as you like, they said.
This collector was an authority on certain subjects that overlapped my interests, and he often wrote for magazines that circulated in the many millions, but with a policy of using unpaid and uncredited writers. His home – which I had visited many times in the past when researching materials for my own literary efforts – was still crammed with about five thousand volumes – give or take – and innumerable files of research material. He had managed to sell off a few rare folios, but nearly everything else remained, as if he were still there.
It was a good day. Mrs O came with me, and we had lunch with one of the daughters and her husband. They had a gossip and I personally went through everything!! Even the books that I knew were buried in a second layer on some of the shelves!
But it was sad on several levels. One was the loss of the individual – which of course is a very personal thing. He wasn’t everyone’s favourite person – none of us are – but I had a great respect for his work, especially his earlier work, and had proofread materials for his last publication.
But as a collector myself, I could see the sadness in the real dilemma facing his family. They hadn’t taken a great interest in the minutia of his collection – it wasn’t their scene – so sadly he couldn’t just have left it to them. They weren’t going to be keepers of the flame. And they were totally nonplussed. They didn’t know what on earth to do with it all. There was this huge daunting mass of materials, and all the widow wanted to do was drastically downsize and get rid of the whole lot as soon as possible.
Now there was gold there. Specialized, but real gold. I did my good deed and didn’t make off with any of the actual valuable re-saleable stuff. I went through it all and told them which volumes were worth a good amount (a nice set of Horae Apocalypticae for example), and should be sold as individual pieces with reserves, and not just be sold as a job-lot, or worse, sent to a charity shop, or even worse again, put in a dumpster. Much of the rare material of interest I already had myself – either as originals or pdfs – so there was no point (other than personal profit) in my taking any of this; and anyway, I felt that would have been a betrayal of the family’s interests.
Instead, I chose the odd quirky materials that appealed to me, plus a mass of correspondence with flaky individuals from the past that filled a few gaps in my jigsaw of strange people and strange events in which I take an unhealthy interest, but few others would. I am VERY pleased to have that material.
A month or two later, after the bulk was sold at auction (with hopefully my suggested reserves on some items), I received a call from another collector friend. He had been out of the country at a crucial time, but still managed to trace where some of the material had gone at auction and obtained some items. It obviously cost him a lot more than the family received by that time, but at least we knew that the family received a fair price and crucially – which is where I am finally coming to in this post - the material has survived.
But it makes one concerned about one’s own holdings. For years I have collected rare materials in a certain field, but knew I would never complete them all. Even the group that originally produced the stuff has gaps in its own collection. My family smile indulgently and ask me to tidy the shelves and the desk and the floor in my office from time to time (I have what is known as a flat filing system), but the details are not their scene. Should I suddenly wander into the road under a truck, I don’t want my nearest and dearest to be faced with the horrible dilemma that poor family I visited faced. I would rather dispose of a lot of original material while I am still fit and well – making sure it either goes to good homes that will treasure it, or at least will pay for it, so won’t just dump it. For really rare materials, we only have “a lend” it seems to me.
So many times I have followed up leads to discover that materials have been lost forever because people have had no idea of their rarity and value. A classic example involved rare movie film which had survived for decades. But by the time I had tracked down the descendants of the owner, he had died and his relatives in their ignorance had junked it. So it was gone for good. In my book, that remains a real tragedy. A reconstruction of the movie in question is still missing some of those segments.
Is there any message in this post? If we collect, we are custodians, we have a “lend” of material – that is all. We may view it as an investment, to generate income when needed of course. That is fair enough. But we really have a responsibility to posterity to see that the content as well as the object lasts longer than we do.
So I have got to the point where I am happy to start shedding my rare materials to fund other things. I am happy when I know the objects have gone to someone younger who will treasure them a bit longer than I may be around, and if they have paid for them, have at least put that value on them. And I am happy to copy what I can and share it freely with the few people who will understand it. Because if future researchers are to able to do their work, then key material must still exist somewhere – and not just exist, but be accessible.
Now when I get on my high horse and bang on like this, you may call me po-faced, you may call me pompous, you can call me whatever you like. I really don’t care. But I don’t want my life’s collecting interest to end up in the trash, and neither would I ever want to subject my family to the dilemma those poor relatives of my friend faced, with their mountain of mystery and little chance to unlock it on their own. So I hope I helped them out a little bit.
Normal service (i.e. feeble attempts at humor) may be restored in future posts.


  1. "If we collect, we are custodians, we have a lend" of material – that is all"

    Occasional Reader, when you have rare books, booklets, magazines, etc. to give away, let me know, I will pay for them. I want to be one of the custodians.

  2. And if your collection contains any old Batman or Superman comics, let me know.