(Allen Lane, £18.99, 274pp)

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.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy