The collecting compulsion is an interesting one, and it seems to exist independently of wealth or poverty, and it may be focused on almost anything. The first thing I can remember collecting were leaves from various trees in the forests around my childhood home in Pennsylvania; I collected rather unsystematically, and pressed the leaves between the pages of a very large illustrated Bible that was one of many hundreds of volumes in my father’s equally unsystematic book collection. I didn’t realize it at the time, but pressing leaves and other botanical samples has a long and illustrious history; the 18th century naturalist Linnaeus, who invented the system of plant and animal classification we still use today, made a collection of specimens which still exist and which are still useful in biological research.
Needless to say, not all collecting takes place on Linnaeus’ intellectually and historically elevated level. Nabokov collected butterflies and was especially, and famously, fascinated by variations in butterfly genitalia. People collect coins; they collect beer cans; they collect bottle caps, toy trains, stamps, and on and on. Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz tells of a collector of Meissen porcelain who lives in East Germany and who, although he dreams of fleeing to the West, cannot do so because it would mean leaving his collection. One of my personal favorite oddities of collecting, is a book written by a now generally forgotten gentleman named William James Sidis, who was born in 1898 and passed away at the age of 46, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in 1944. A child prodigy, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard at the age of 16, and his teachers compared his genius for numbers to that of the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, but Sidis as an adult developed a number of debilitating eccentricities, and his early promise was unfulfilled.
His magnum opus was not a work on astronomy, or geometry, or anything to do with math or science at all. Instead, he devoted much of his adult life to collecting streetcar transfers – small slips of variously colored paper tickets, which he accumulated with astonishing voracity. In 1926, he published a lengthy book on the activity, under the pseudonym Frank Folupa: Notes On The Collection Of Transfers; the book among its many oddities, was intended by its author …read more