To Have and to Hold
By Philipp Blom
Paperback: 345 pages
Publisher: Overlook TP (May 25, 2004)
In a nutshell, reading Philipp Blom’s book is time well spent. At first, the sight of beetles and insects on its cover is not only disconcerting but also not at all appetising.
However the full title of the book, To Have and To Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, takes the reader into the private world of people whose lives are so connected with the idea of collecting stuff that you’re instantly hooked.
Start flicking through the pages and you need not go far before you encounter the first of many things that makes the book unique. The titles Blom gives his chapters are in themselves interesting, for example, ‘Parliament of Monsters’, ‘An Ark Abducted’ and ‘Why Boling People is Wrong’.
The order in which her presents the chapters is cleverly structured to reveal the routes collectors take to explore their interest.
We begin with Blom’s story about the three gentlemen he knew who had started him thinking about collectors and collecting. One of them collects books because he did not have much or a formal education in his youth. Now, he makes up for that by collecting and reading every book he can get his hands on.
Then, we are taken on a historical journey which involves the collection of mystical items and relics from a bygone ear. Next, there are strange plants, animals and insects to consider. Once nature has been ‘conquered’, we learnt about the collection of things human – organs, skulls and ‘unnatural’ people.
We turn next to what I like to call the hybrid between relics and humans – memorabilia of and from people who have become relics themselves. An example of this would be Napoleon Bonaparte’s locks.
The book comes a full circle when Blom relates the story of another man who collects an enormous amount of books, manuscripts and anything at all in print.
It is obvious that lots of research has gone into this book. Moreover, what is astounding is the manner in which Blom has conveyed the intimate details of the collectors’ lives, their problems, misfortunes, fortunes and idiosyncrasies and the era in which they live. He does it with such flair that the reader is bound to view this subject in new light. The language is simple and the message is conveyed effectively.
It is to Blom’s credit that he is able to foresee the questions a reader may have and has inserted his answers where appropriate. For example, by the time one is more that halfway thought the book, one begins to ask, “Why on earth would someone collect deformed babies who were born dead or died soon after birth?” Blom answers by saying that the value of these collections lie in their usefulness, significance, meaning and association with the collector.
The reader will no doubt go through a gamut of emotions reading this book. How, indeed, is it not possible to laugh when reading this:
‘… On leaving the Archangel the English party fired a salute with their ship’s cannon, thanking their hosts for the hospitality they had received. One of the cannons was unfortunately loaded and ripped a large hole in a harbourside house, leaving the hosts ‘gaping and in great perplexity’.’
In a chapter entitled The Exquisite Art of Dr. Ruysch, one cannot help but wonder how morbid a man the artist must be when his artwork, though beautiful, is made of things like a four-month-old foetus, minute kidney stones and intestines. There is also a demonstration of human cruelty when Blom writes about the eccentricity of one collector, Tsar Peter the Great:
‘Peter was a voracious collector of … natural oddities and freaks. His love of dwarfs and other freaks occasionally found expression in lavish and cruel festivities such as the marriage of the Royal Dwarf, Iakim Volkov, for which the tsar ordered dwarfs to be rounded up in Moscow and sent to St. Petersburg where they were shut up like cattle for several days and then received especially tailored clothes in which they had to celebrate Volkov’s wedding as one large assembly of Lilliputians, while normal sized onlookers did little to stifle their laughter …’
The illustrations in this book are clear and well-placed. Alas, there are no captions under any of these illustrations and at times, having to constantly refer to the beginning of the book for the title of a painting or sculpture and its origins can be most irksome.
All said and done, towards the end of the book, one realises that this is a serious study and Blom sums up by referring to the earlier-mentioned enormous collection of books and manuscripts: ‘The sheer accumulation of books does not constitute a library. It is also their organisation, the ordering mind inhabiting and ruling them.’
Finally, he suggest that perhaps it is not wise to hold on to things. Still, this is one book I would not only like to read again, I will certainly hold on to it.
7 March 2008
[A similar review of this book was written and published in the local newspaper, The Star, in April 2004.]