Monday, March 27, 2006

lure: in pursuit of the rare and obscure

Collecting is a disease, an affliction, a curse, a malediction of the first degree. It compels, it entices, it whispers in the quiet moments, urging you to folly. It draws you close and holds on for dear, dear life.

I should know.

I've learned to recognize the siren's call to collect. . .collect. My survival technique is when presented with an opportunity to go broad, I settle for narrow. Case in point: I'm a huge fan of Edward Gorey, but allowing myself to fall victim to the "I collect Edward Gorey" virus would have bankrupted me years ago, so I settled for collecting instances of his art that include one of his characters - the Figbash. It narrowed my focus, and my potential investment, without unduly narrowing my enjoyment.

(Note: I discovered Gorey back when he was a) still alive and b) you could wander in to the old Gotham Book Mart and sweet-talk one of the staff to show you their 2nd floor Gorey gallery.)

So when I found myself drawn in an unseemly way to the private press movement, I narrowed my focus to the output of one private press: The Whittington Press. When I got bitten by the modern Japanese vinyl toy bug, I narrowed to Secret Base, then even further to one particular character created in partnership with a magazine I subscribe to (Ghostfighter).

I could go on. Genre fiction? Focus on R.A. Lafferty, Jeff Noon, Paul di Filippo. 20th century fabulists? Focus on Flann O'Brian and Italo Calvino. Post-modern comic book authors? Focus on Bob Burden. Pottery? Focus on pinch pots. Modern firsts? Focus on Jonathan Lethem. History? American Civil War. Craft? Letterpress and typography. Japanese woodblock? Katsuyuki Nishijima. Wine? Rhone Valley.

Learning everything there is to know about a narrow topic has a certain appeal - it harkens back to the argument I made for expertise making you an expert.

Whenever presented with something new, I find myself looking for depth, for that one avenue of inquiry that affords the opportunity for deep exploration and specialization. I was watching Tony Bourdain's "No Reservations" show on China tonight (on the Travel Channel) and caught myself thinking, Wow, wouldn't it be cool to learn a lot about different sorts of Chinese tea. Can you say Pu'er?

In my work, I operate at a level of broad abstraction completely at odds with my fondness for pursuing the narrowly discrete. Then I read articles written by tchnologists who I just know must be operating at that deep level of specificity whose flavor I know - and love. But from the outside, what they write about (talk about, argue about, start companies about) is utterly incomprehensible to me. It's not the technology that's obscuring - it's the passion.

Working in that "zone" of desire, surrounded everyday by the objects of one's fascination, must be as easy as breathing - an effortless exercise of a singular vision for the rare and the obscure.

Is that what its like to be a software geek, where eveything one sees is an expression of desire?

I'm curious. Because if it is - if it is anything like how I feel when I'm hot in the pursuit of the San Diego Comic Con Ghostfighter exclusive, or when I'm wrapping a fresh Brodart dust jacket protector around a signed first edition, or when I'm researching what the 69th New York volunteers were up to in 1864, or learning a new song that Frank Harte collected - then that tells me a lot about them, and myself.


Ron said...

I gave up collecting when I finally figured out that, even if you own everything, you don't know anything.

I'd rather dance than own a 1000 books on dancing.

So it's only the psychological aspect of something that gets me to "collect" it, and when I've got that nut in nutcase cracked, I don't need to collect anymore.

Never let your collections tell you how much of them you should have.

bob said...

My collecting urge is driven by the desire to know more - not everything I collect is tangible. The things I enjoy collecting most are books, which in and of themselves offer both learning and links to other learning, other insights.

I guess I'm in agreement with you when I say the collections that are of greatest interest to me are those whose depths I have yet to completely experience. The drive to go. . . just. . . a little. . .further is the thing.

Ron said...

I'm curious what non-tangible things you collect!

My point more consisely made is that I'm making my head and my heart answer the question of why more aggressively, and not just letting the collecting nerve spasmotically twitch... But the why answer my involve collecting, maybe even deep collecting. Still, always remember, cart, then horse!

bob said...

Oh, but there are so many non-tangible things to collect. I'll give you three.

First among them are songs - Frank Harte, the late teacher of my old teacher, was a famous collector of songs. Karan gave me a few of her favorite songs (Donal Og, Lord Gregory's Daughter first among them). A high-school teacher gave me a very old tune from colonial America called "Barbara Allen".

Once you've got a song, then there's the history of it. Lord Gregory's Daughter refers to the story of the Wild Geese, the gentry of Ireland who left Ireland in 1690 after the Battle of the Boyne for France to serve Louis XIV with James II. Read "The Songs of the Dispossed" and you'll find all manner of history - which comes handy when you hear an old song, and you discover its roots.

Then there are words. Words are my dearest friends, and they stand up well to collecting.

Then there is lore related to a craft. In my case, related to product management, to singing, to playing piano, to bookhunting, to parenting. You have to want to go looking, and once you've found, you have to want to keep what you've found safe against the mildew and ruin of faulty memory.