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The Triumph and Tragedy of SF Collecting
Or "Honey, where's your paycheque, and where'd all these books come from?"
by John O'Neill

Click on any of the covers below for a larger image.

Art: Mel Hunter
Okay, quick quiz for you.

You're in a bookstore. You've currently got the wherewithal to buy exactly one slim volume, and you've narrowed it down to two choices. The first is the title you've been waiting to arrive for months, a guaranteed slam-bang read. The other is a book you've been meaning to pick up for a while, but kept putting it off... could be good, could be bad, only one way to tell. But now there's only one copy left, and this is the last store you know that has it in stock.

Which one do you buy?

If you said the first one, good for you. You're a wise shopper, and a reader first. For you, books are to be enjoyed and shared, and nothing holds as much promise as a new arrival on the shelves.

If, like me, you're sure you'd find your hand straying towards that second volume -- you poor sap. For you, nothing is as satisfying as the complete library, or the rare find of an unusual title or bizarre old relic. Books attract your interest in direct proportion to the effort it takes to obtain them, and reading, as wondrous as it is, is secondary to the having. You're a collector, and may God have mercy on your soul.

"Hi... My Name Is John, and I'm a Collector."

Typical RPG Collectible: Dallas
Role-Playing Game (SPI, 1980)

I collect a great many things (far too many, my wife insists). In large part, they are print-related, and virtually all encompass the genres of SF, Fantasy or Horror in some fashion. The ones I'm most passionate about include computer games (I've accumulated several thousand at last count, for over a dozen different systems), comics (especially Silver Age Marvel and newer Independents), and role-playing games (everything from Dallas to Bunnies and Burrows).

But books and magazines -- especially science fiction and fantasy -- are the grandparents of this whole obsession, the things I began collecting first. I don't think I thought of myself as a collector at the age of ten, but I'd certainly hoarded enough reading material to qualify. And around about that age I started caring about the condition of what I purchased and owned, one of the affliction's first symptoms.

How'd it all start? That's something that's lost in the mists of time, I'm afraid -- like exactly who I loaned my Mad Magazine collection to in Grade 7, or where the hell I put the car keys in 1989. But I have stumbled on a few things that have tweaked some memories, though... as well as set my mind to wondering on the whole peculiar topic of collecting in general.

The Runaway Robot,
Lester del Rey (1965)
I recently came across a small collection of Scholastic Books from 1968-1975, including many that I had possessed as a child and long since mislaid, and was surprised by the powerful memories those books invoked. I was also struck both by how many were clearly SF or SF-related. Just about anyone who went to grade school in North America knows what Scholastic Books are -- nowadays they're mostly known for R.L. Stine's phenomenally successful Goosebumps line -- but on the off chance that you've surfed in from Ecuador, here's a quick primer.

Scholastic Books are sold by catalog in grade schools across the US and Canada. The way I remember it, your teacher would hand out those colorful little flyers during class, you'd look over the tantalizing selections with a flashlight late at night, and place your order the following week. About thirty days later, a big package would be waiting on Miss Roache's desk, which she'd tear open with agonizing slowness, and the entire class was required to sit quietly at their desks while those of us who'd ordered books would be given our treasures and permitted the time to savour them. The message was simple: books got you special treatment. It sunk in.

Scholastic Books are the first true science fiction I remember reading. I was already pre-disposed towards fantastic literature in general as a result of an extensive classical education in comics, especially the brilliant work of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and especially Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics. But these compact little volumes from Scholastic, including novels by Robert Silverberg, Gordon R. Dickson, Lester del Rey, and many others, were the first books that really ignited my imagination. I wasn't old enough to stick a label on it, not really. But I sure knew that the books with robots, spacesuits, and -- most especially! -- aliens on the cover tended to be the most fascinating and exciting of the lot.

To Own a Piece of History

2000 A.D. (Art: Brian Miller)
About 1975 or so I came into possession of a book that showed me, once and for all, that SF wasn't just an abstract market category. It had a culture. The book was 2000 A.D.: Illustrations from the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps by Jacques Sadoul, published and translated from the French by Henry Regnery Co (1975). More than anything else before or since, that book opened my eyes to the mind-bogglingly vast history of science fiction, a genre packed with colorful characters -- wonderfully talented authors and artists, quirky editors, and plenty of bizarre personalities -- as much as it was with rare publications, publishing mysteries, small miracles and strange coincidences. Science Fiction as an identifiable genre began in the 1800s, and its roots stretched as far back as Ancient Greece. Robots, aliens, and even spacesuits -- they'd all been contemplated for hundreds, and maybe even thousands of years. Geez.

That book triggered a fascination with the roots of science fiction that has yet to cool. More than that, it introduced me to the concept of SF as a culture -- with a rich and potent history that had value and was worthy of study. Suddenly the instinctual accumulation of junk in my room wasn't just a lazy habit. It was a science. When I argued with my parents over throwing out my old comic books with a passion I couldn't explain, it wasn't because I was just a stubborn kid. I was preserving the roots of a neglected branch of literature. I was a cultural archeologist, and there were others like me. Yeah, that was it.

Interiors to 2000 A.D.
It's one thing to appreciate the breadth and history of a genre. It's quite another to be obsessed with hoarding it. When I moved to Chicago in the summer of 1991, I moved everything I'd kept in storage in my parent's basement in Ottawa during my years in grad school. The shipping manifesto listed two pieces of furniture, a box of ill-fitting t-shirts, and over three tons of books. I stared at the dust-covered mound of paperbacks, old Avalon Hill games, and bound volumes of Analog heaped in boxes in my new living room and asked myself seriously, for the first time, what gives.

What is it that drives us to collect? To treasure and horde above all? (Crass materialism, my wife Alice informs me matter-of-factly, but let's face it -- what does she know? She's never even read Heinlein.) I consider myself a fairly articulate guy, but frankly I often find myself at a loss for words when being asked -- not always patiently -- to justify the purchase of a collection of 30s pulp magazines with titles like Strange Tales and Air Wonder Stories the same week I was forced to put the grocery bill on a credit card. Why do I save, sacrifice, and go into debt for something that's immediately going to go onto a shelf and gather dust?

The Lure of the Original

The Haunted Omnibus,
(Blue Ribbon, 1941)
Every February I make the trip down to Champaign-Urbana for WinterWar, the annual gaming convention. Mostly it's for the auction, a very friendly (and rarely crowded) gathering that's ideal for picking up a few gaming oddities at a fair price. I always stop by one of the local shops as well, and this time it was the wonderful Jane Addams bookshop on Neil street. I came out with two boxes of SF rarities, and a VISA bill for several hundred dollars.

Alice began the cross-examination with the usual warm-up questions. "Did you really want these that much?" she said, eyeing The Haunted Omnibus: Great Ghost Stories of the World (edited by Alexander Laing, Blue Ribbon Books, 1937) suspiciously. I was on thin ice with this one. The green face on the cover was shaped with bodies twisted together, and the two pits of the eyes were formed by a battered skull and the left breast of a reclining nude. Pretty risqué for 1937, but this is the kind of thing that one just has to have.

"Well, yeah," I admitted. "This is the only copy of this edition I've ever seen."

"What about this one?" Ah, Famous Science Fiction Stories: Adventures in Time and Space, the classic anthology edited by Raymond J. Healey and J. Francis McComas. The 1957 Modern Library hardcover edition. "35 great stories of the world of atomic power, rockets, robots, time and space machines, etc." Over a thousand pages of nifty short stores from 1936-45, including "The Proud Robot," by Lewis Padgett and "Asylum" by A.E. Van Vogt. Boy, it's hard to resist anything with the words "space machines" on the cover.

Adventures in Time and Space,
(Modern Library, 1957)
"I dunno. That one was in such great shape, and it collected so many neglected stories..."

"How do you know they're... any good?"


"The stories. How do you know they're even worth reading?"

"Oh. Well. I bought the trade paperback version in the early 80s, and even the original paperback from 1946 had most of the... what?"

She's giving me the look. "You already have reprints of these books??"

"Well, sure. The trade version of Adventures in Time and Space, and also the '46 paperback. Even The Haunted Omnibus was reprinted in a facsimile edition in 1996, with the original artwork, all except for the cover. It doesn't..." I trailed off. I could see this wasn't helping my case.

"Then why," asked my lovely wife in a carefully modulated voice, "did we spend so much on these ones?"

So there is was. The question. Why had I busted the budget, burdening the credit cards, stolen from Junior's College fund (take your pick) for a pair of books in essence already had?

"Because," I said.

And that's about the jist of it, really.


The Haunted Omnibus,
(MJF Books, 1996)

I could -- and probably should -- elaborate on that closing argument a little. Point out for example that, for a collector, books are more than merely vessels of entertainment or even enlightenment. They are compact, beautiful little works of art, to be cherished and preserved for their own sake.

And as for reprints... well. All well and good, especially when they're done in a more splendid edition (which is often the case). But let's face it -- read a reprint of a 1937 anthology, and what do you have? A collection of moldy stories with wooden dialogue and worse science, as often as not. Ah, but to hold the original in your hands, to enjoy the tales in the full context of history while breathing the musty scent of the past... that's the ticket.

But I won't belabor my point (for one thing, it would cheat me of material for subsequent articles). But if you're a collector yourself, remember to stop once in a while and ask yourself why you do it. For love, money, or something... in between. And then join us in two weeks for as we have a look at some of the buried treasures you can find in your local bookstore, and in particular what magazines to look out for and why. It's sure to be a collector's item.

You know where to find us.

John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site. He studied English Literature at the University of Ottawa and received a Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, neither of which was successful in setting him on an interesting career path. He's worked for a number of Internet start-up firms, enough to be deeply confused at almost every level concerning the Internet. He is a Canadian living in St. Charles, Illinois, with his wife and two children.

Copyright © 1999 by A. John O'Neill

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