Bezoars, crocodile teeth, sextants, first editions: if it can be collected, it figures in the pages of this entertaining debut, a history of passion-driven accumulation.
Though only 32, European journalist and translator Blom writes with an old hand’s appreciation for the deep-seated impulse to gather things and make them one’s own. Much of his narrative consists of brief profiles of collectors possessed by that need, some quite uncontrollably. Among them are Spain’s King Philip II, who “sent out agents to bring him every relic they could find,” amassing 7,000 items connected with Christian saints including 4 whole bodies and 144 heads, as well as putative pieces of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns; American newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who filled his California castle and apartments throughout the land with millions of dollars’ worth of art, inspiring Orson Welles’s movie Citizen Kane and pushing himself deep into debt in the bargain; English gardener John Tradescant, whose renowned collection of “Shining Stones or of Any Strange Shapes,” animal skins, books, and drawings forms the basis of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum (why it’s not called the Tradescantian Museum is a tale in itself); and Hollywood-based artist Alex Shear, who hoards such things as African-American Barbie dolls and Jell-O boxes in an effort to chronicle the essential childishness of American culture. Blom also explores with a light hand what their obsessions mean; he observes, for instance, that the act of collecting and classifying things allows the amasser to impose order on a patently disorderly universe and remarks on the odd correlation between uselessness and value, such that goods with practical purposes are less prized than “a stamp that is no longer valid, an empty matchbox that missed the rubbish bin only because its last user had a poor aim.”
Learned but accessible, a pleasure for all readers bitten by the bug of impractical acquisition.