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. …