Rick Gekoski is an American book collector who now lives in the UK. To be precise, he makes a living by collecting rare books and selling them on at a considerable profit. He is also a writer of some repute, an academic and former university lecturer (and the ex-husband of a therapist I consulted briefly when my son was long-term ill – I feel almost a family connection!) Despite his love of old books, he is puzzled by the obsessive nature of some book collectors, particularly those who will pay huge sums of money for old books that are still pristine and have clearly not been read. After all, old paintings and furniture are enhanced by the patina of age, why not books?

A not so pristine copy of the Hemingway book

What, he wondered, was the pathology behind all this? Some years ago he decided to consult his aunt Milly, a psychoanalyst.

Why, he asked her, do collectors want pristine copies of rare books such as Hemingway’s little known, but stylishly produced limited edition – Three Stories and Ten Poems?

I quote their exchange, as recorded in his book Tolkien’s Gown and other stories, in full:

“There are several things conjoined here,” she said thoughtfully. “First, I suppose is the possession of the virgin. The possessor gets some special, erotic pleasure from the unsullied quality of the object, which is his alone to fondle. It puts him – I presume we are talking men here, aren’t we? – in an intimate relation to the object.”

This seemed to me good sense.

“And yet,” she added, “as is often true with forms of displaced sexual activity, there is a great deal of fear her as well ….”

“Fear?” I asked.

“Of contagion, of being caught in some illicit activity, of which one is ashamed.”

“Come on Auntie,” I said hastily, “we are talking books collecting here …”

“The book is encased in a perfect wrapper, and then both are enclosed in a box. Prophylaxis is certainly involved. A morbid fear of contagion can be inferred, I think …”

“Contagion?”

“Well sweetie,” she said (she is a very affectionate aunt) “we live in a world in which fear of Aids is almost as acute as fear of ageing. Almost everyone is terrified of death, fearful about sex, and wants to look and remain young forever.”

“Do you mean …” I began in astonishment.

“Exactly!” she said. “They seek some surrogate activity. The book becomes the objective correlative of the state of being they yearn for, as well as a talisman warding off all that they most fear. That’s why your little Hemingway book was so expensive.”

“So?” I asked thoughtfully, hardly able to take this all in.

“So,” she said firmly, “from a psychoanalytic point of view, book collecting is a very rational activity indeed, and you shouldn’t let it upset you.”

“Thanks, Auntie,” I said. “You’ve helped me a lot. Wait ‘til I tell my friends.”

“You like golf don’t you? [Maybe] you should get out more.”

Fortunately for Mr Gekoski, he does seem to have a LOT of interests aside from book collecting, so his aunt doesn’t need to worry.  (And I do like reading his books).

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