Saturday, July 31, 2010

Are Stamps Stuff?

One of my favorite quotes about collecting is that it is "an obsession organized." Some of you may know about a new book titled Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Dr. Randy Frost and Dr. Gail Steketee. While the book focuses on compulsive hoarding, the chapter "We are what we own: Owning, Collecting, and Hoarding" does have some interesting bits relevant to stamp collecting.

So, why do we collect? It may be instinctual or cultural or both. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm "suggested that acquiring things is one way that people relate to the world around them." But regardless of the motivation, collectors exist in practically every culture.

What constitutes a collection? Collections must contain multiple objects and "the items must be related in some way--they must have some kind of cohesive theme." Even that doesn't get completely encompass the essence of collecting. To riff on one of the author's analogies, a handful of stamps in your desk drawer intended for postage doesn't constitute a collection. But put them in an Blue International Volume 1 and voila.

In our country alone, perhaps one third of adults collect something. But collecting is practically universal among children, "sometimes beginning as early as age three. Not coincidentally, it is at that time that children begin to understand possessive pronouns such as 'mine' and 'yours.'"

In what reminded me of the K├╝bler-Ross 5 steps of grieving, some scholars find collectors follow a typical pattern:

1) deciding what items to collect;
2) planning how to acquire the item(s);
3) fantasizing about the item(s);
4) hunting for the item(s);
5) cataloging new acquisition(s); and
6) displaying them.

The authors provide some interesting insights on these steps. During the planning stages, "the fantasies increase the object's subjective value and give it a magical quality, and soon the value of the object outstrips and becomes disconnected from any functional utility it may have. Next comes the hunt, frequently the most pleasurable part of collecting. Many collectors shift from a self-focused state to what some have described as a 'flow state,' a mental state in which the person is so absorbed in the activity that he or she is unaware of his or her surrounds."

"When the acquisition occurs, it is accompanied by a wave of euphoria and appreciation of the object's features, which become part of the 'story' of the acquisition. Finally, the excited collector catalogs the object and adds it to the collection, arranging for its display. Often subtle rituals accompany newly acquired objects. For instance, Freud used to place new acquisitions on his dining room table so that he could admire them while he ate." I, myself, about as normal a person as you will find who writes a blog on filling spaces in a Blue International Album, has been known to leaf purposely through specific pages in my album to admire the "Penny Black" and other stamps I have looked forward to acquiring.

Some scholars believe that "collecting is a way of managing fears about death by creating a form of immortality" whereby our collections "can live on after we die." Others suggest a compensation theory is at work where "people who question their self-worth" need the objects in their collection to boost self-esteem.

If all of this has you worried about whether stamp collecting is pathological, the authors offer this reassurance: "It hardly matters how much stuff anyone owns as long as it doesn't interfere with his or her health or happiness or that of others." Well, that's a relief.

UPDATE 8/20/10: Normally, Lawrence Block's "Generally Speaking" column in Linn's consists of topics that I wish I had thought of first, even if I could never treat them as well as he does. But his column in the 23 August 2010 Linn's titled "Philately and the 'H' Word" is about hoarding--the topic of this blog entry. Of course, he brings in some aspects that I had never considered, namely do you do any of these:

1) save stamps that you receive in the mail without intending to add them to your collection?
2) save the glassines that you receive stamps in from others?
3) save stock cards that you receive stamps in from others?
4) save auction catalogs or pricelists?
4) save old stamp catalogs?
5) save back issues of stamp periodicals?

I have to plead guilty to all but the last two. I only keep catalogs that I use in my collecting and every month or two I tear out the articles I'm interested in from newspapers, newsletters, and magazines and recycle the rest. So there may be hope for me yet.

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