Everyone should have a hobby. I was going to tell you who said that, but I’ve done some research and apparently no one did—that is, no one is credited with having coined or popularized the phrase. Yet we’ve all heard it, and it has the ring of truth about it. For some reason, though, I’ve never been a hobby sort of person. I vividly remember applying for a job many years ago and filling out a form that included a question about my hobbies; I broke into a sweat trying to think of what hobbies would sound good because I had none. (Reading didn’t count. Reading isn’t a hobby; it’s one of those things essential to life, like breathing.) I tried coin-collecting when I was young—even went to the neighbourhood stationery shop (man, am I an antique!) where I bought my books and spent some of my book-buying money on a few of those cardboard folders used to hold a coin collection. Interested though I was in the old kings on my pennies and in the fact that some of my coins were minted long before I was born, I lost interest in keeping up my collection, which never amounted to more than about 50 pennies. And the stamp album I found under the tree one Christmas morning never had more than about 10 stamps in it.
Given my long-standing lack of a hobby, I was surprised when a used-book dealer whose shop I haunted before he retired told me, in the voice of one who has just reached a conclusion after some thought, “You are a collector.” “Piffle!” I said (or something very much like “piffle”). The idea was absurd. I asked for an explanation, and he had one, based on earlier chats we’d had. “Anyone,” he said, “who knows the difference between the early 1970s Pan edition and the late 1970s Pan edition of the James Bond novels and who actually prefers the artwork on the covers of the earlier editions and keeps an eye out for them so as to buy the ones he’s missing, well, that sort of person is a collector.” As further evidence, he cited my excitement on the day I bought from him a beautiful leather-bound two-volume edition of General Robert E. Lee’s journal, letters, and field orders, which I had apparently mentioned would be a nice additon to the American Civil War section of my library of books on military history.
So I like books, I thought later. And I like to own the books I’ve read and enjoyed. And when I find an author I like, it only makes sense to want to read (and therefore own) all of his or her books. And I just happen to have a particular fondness for rare old volumes, especially English crime fiction from the early 20th century, and so naturally frequently visit used-book stores—in every city I visit. And so what if my personal library has sections? Doesn’t everyone’s? That doesn’t make it a “collection,” any more than hunting for certain books that I don’t yet but hope to own one day makes me a collector.
But, as whoever-it-was wisely observed, everyone should have a hobby. A hobby is supposed to be good for you, and I’ve been thinking that I should probably find one—and I will if I ever find the time. But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go tend to my aquarium full of South American fish.