Sunday, February 19, 2012

Collecting Books: Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness

Some books are for reading, others for shelf esteem
Annie Ho 

Someone once wrote that as soon as you buy a book that you have no intention of reading, you move from reader to collector. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite apply to my collecting children's books because I always have the intention that either I will read or re-read it, or I will read it aloud to my children, and/or my children will someday read it themselves.

Nicholas Basbanes, who has written extensively on book culture, aptly calls book collecting 'a gentle madness'. I'm almost always more excited by the sight of my deliveries from Amazon than other online retailers. I scurry away with the delivery box as soon as it arrives, primarily to avoid hearing groans of 'more books?' from my husband, and sometimes to prevent my children rifling through the dozen pristine copies of the same book which I plan to give to friends. Later, when I have a little time to myself, I will savour the new arrivals before carefully parking them in our gift closet or integrating them into our double-depth bookshelf.

I spent New Year's Eve at a friend's home, and had the opportunity to peruse his enviable collection of first-edition children's storybooks, such as Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales illustrated by Kay Nielsen, a celebrated illustrator from the early 20th century who contributed to Fantasia and other Disney films.

Alas, my friend and I agreed that these books are best served when they remain inside their glass cabinet. When trying to instil the joy of reading and a love of books in children, we require another collection of books for everyday use. Such books will be chewed on by teething babies, torn by babbling toddlers and frayed from many consecutive nights of re-reading.

I myself have been amassing a humble heap of anniversary editions or collectors' sets of storybooks, many of which are too advanced for my young children. I had planned to buy books suitable for their ages, but learned a hard lesson when I gave away my last copy of art-house publisher Phaidon's Nicholas. The first in a series of five beautiful linen-covered books translated from the well-known stories written by Ren?Goscinny, this book was sold out everywhere. For over a year, I felt uneasy when I looked at the other four books in the series, and I finally bid for the missing book on eBay. 

It's worthwhile buying your favourite books now even if they're not yet age-appropriate for your child because they may go out of print or significantly increase in price when your child is ready. For example, the deluxe Harry Potter collector's set is difficult to find and is more costly than when it was first sold in 2007. So, if you're a Tintin fan, you may consider snapping up the new box sets that have been reintroduced with the release of the new Tintin movie.

Interestingly, my one year-old is very respectful of books. The younger child is indiscriminate about the things that go into her mouth and yet, when it comes to books, she doesn't gnaw at corners or mistreat them like her big sister did well into her toddler years. 

From a young age, my younger child started to flip through pages of books gently and earnestly. For this, I thank the elder child for setting a good example. As a result, both are welcome to all the children's books throughout our home. In fact, I am yet to designate any book 'off-limits'.
I have no intention of moving from reader to collector just yet.

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across Hong Kong

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