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To Have and to Hold, by Philipp Blom

Human beings (mainly male) are compulsive collectors. Geoff Nicholson snaps up a history of their hobbies

J Pierpoint Morgan offered the least complicated piece of advice that any collector is likely to receive. Whatever you're collecting, he said, simply buy the 100 best examples in the world and stop. It's advice that few of us are able to follow. If you were making a collection of, say, books on collectors and collecting, it would be difficult to know where to start, let alone stop.

Two kinds of books are published on the subject. The first is celebratory and fun, showing pictures of smiling nerds (mostly, though not exclusively, male), surrounded by roomfuls of lawnmowers or model trains. These books often find their way to the remainder tables, from where I have collected quite a few. The second aims to be scholarly and scientific, examining the historical and psychological underpinnings of collecting, often pushing an analogy about sexual pursuit. These books, inevitably, aren't inclined to deal with the lawnmower collectors of the world, so instead they tend to concentrate on the usual suspects: the Tradescants, Hans Sloane, John Soane, Rudolf of Bavaria et al.

Philipp Blom's book belongs in the latter category. He discusses all the above collectors, though some of the scholarship looks more impressive than it really is: there are plenty of untranslated German and Dutch texts in the bibliography, but also some sloppiness on dates.

However, this material is pure gold for a writer. There is a grand narrative about knowledge, order and classification. Then there is a more local narrative full of amazing anecdotes and curiosities. So Blom tells us that Sloane, progenitor of both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, was the last of the "universal" collectors, a man who, having married well, could collect anything that took his fancy, from Egyptian antiquities, to shoes, to "snakes in spirits". Then we read how Handel visited Sloane in 1740 and caused havoc by placing a buttered bun on a precious medieval manuscript.

We read about Frederick Ruysch, the greatest "preparator" of medical specimens ever known, who created "still lives" out of preserved specimens. In one, the skeleton of a four-month-old foetus plays a violin made out of necrotic bone, with a dried artery for a bow. His collection was acquired by Peter the Great, a formidable collector in his own right, but we learn that one of his passions was for human teeth, especially those he had personally extracted from other people.

Coming up to date, there are honourable mentions for Robert Opie and his vast collection of packaging, and Alex Shear, the closest thing to a modern universal collector. Blom calls him "the Noah of American life". There's also a reference to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, a sublime piece of what we might call installation art by David Wilson, which undermines the whole notion of collecting. Blom's accounts of these modern collectors seem to be culled solely from secondary sources, and I wish he had made more of them.

Blom is not content to tell stories. He's keen to draw some grand conclusions, and these are sound but not startling. Unable to exert control in the world at large, collectors become autocratic rulers of their own small universe, but then the collection begins to control the collector. He further asserts that collections are simultaneously a hedge against mortality and a sure reminder of it. He will get no argument on this from me, or anyone else.

There were times when I wondered who the intended audience was for this book – the common reader or the scholar – but in the end it didn't matter: it's for both. If you're new to the subject, it will be a cabinet of startling curiosities. If you're already obsessed with the literature of collecting, you'll have to buy it anyway – whether it's one of the 100 best or not.