Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 15 January 2009

When is enough enough?

I've always been a bit of a collector. It probably started with bubblegum cards. I can still remember them from primary school. There were World War II cards and the American Civil war and I remember The Man from Uncle and Captain Scarlet, then there was Star Trek, Cadbury's 'Dangerous Animals' and the ones you used to get with Brooke Bond Tea. Oh, and the ones from sweet cigarettes too. I had them all.

And then there was my stamp collection, my coin collection followed by Matchbox cars, rocks, shells, fossils, comics and bullets. And then I discovered music. Oh boy! Books came last for me. I was sixteen. This doesn't mean I never read before then but from the age of sixteen I started to amass books beginning with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and I still own that original copy; it cost me 35p.

I read a lot of Solzhenitsyn at the time. I liked the idea of having a collection although I never did get round to The Gulag Archipelago, the only major work by him I haven't read; it's awfully thick. Asimov was the next author I took a real shine too and I've still got a whean of stuff by him. As I recall I started with I, Robot and moved on from there. He has written a lot of stuff though and there's no way I'd ever be able to collect everything he's written.

It is surprising how little some famous authors have actually published. I could hold everything Larkin wrote in one hand and that probably includes all his jazz reviews, at least the collected reviews. I do own all of Beckett's work, everything that made it into book form in any case. I think there a few scraps out there that were never collected but don't quote me on that.

I'm a Beckett scholar so I'm happy to read works in progress or half-finished stuff because I'm interested in the process as well as the end product. As regards most other authors, I really only want to see a fair selection of what they saw fit to publish. The thing about some of Beckett's works is that they were published under … duress is probably too strong a word but he was put under pressure to put out stuff before he was ready. Indeed he published stuff in his lifetime that he really didn't want to put out there ever. And I've read all of that too. I've read many of his letters. I probably would read his laundry lists if someone saw fit to release them.

I'm reminded of the artist David Hockney who discovered that people were going through his bins and stealing bits of art he had thrown out to sell as 'genuine' Hockney. Of course what they salvaged was genuine - that's not the issue - but he considered it sub-standard. So he started putting dirty great crosses through the drawings and they still went for them, framed them up and flogged them. Finally he started ripping them up.

One might argue that a poor piece of writing by someone like Beckett or a scribble by Hockney would be better than most of us would do on our best day and that probably is true but who should decide when a work is finished? Beckett was extremely self-critical and was never truly happy with anything he'd written. Should we simply pooh-pooh that? Or what about Kafka's request to destroy his writing on his death? It never happened and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Would that have been so bad? You never miss what you never had. So I'm told.

I collect music by Tangerine Dream. I think I've about 60 albums now. It's more than the last time I wrote but I can't be bothered counting again. But there are loads I've not got. Apart from a few of the early albums like Tangram or Stratosfear you could put most of them on and I wouldn't be able to tell you which one we were listening to; they do all get very samey after a while, especially the later stuff. So, why do I keep buying them? What am I hoping to hear? Or am I collecting simply for the sake of it?

It's the same with Mike Oldfield. I've got everything he's ever released post-Tubular Bells. I've even got a bootleg of The Orchestral Hergest Ridge and I've heard that awful hippy- esque album he released before Tubular Bells. Oh, and talking about Tubular Bells, I think I've heard at least five versions of the original score released by him and there's really nothing much to distinguish one from another. I didn't even know that John Cleese did the 2003 narration till I looked it up just now.

The point I'm trying to make here is that I think most authors – and I include myself in this list – only have a fixed amount to say about the world. One only has to look at all the poems I've written about truth to get my point. What more could I possibly have to add? And yet I still find myself mulling over the same old questions. It's one of the benchmarks I use to assess my level of depression. If I'm spending too much time pondering the imponderable then I've usually moved up to a capital D.

There is a challenge, of course, to say that you've read everything by a single author. But to say I've read and understood everything by a certain author, ah well. I cannot make that claim as regards Beckett. I can't even say that about Brautigan and I've just finished the last two novels that I'd been saving plus I've read his daughter's biography. So, am I any closer to understanding him? I don’t think so. I really didn't need to read those last two novels. I knew before I started that they weren't his best work. So why read them? Really, if I'm honest, just to say I have.

I was never in the Boy Scouts or anything like that growing up but I did like the idea of getting merit badges. Now I've got my Beckett and Brautigan badges. I've got my Webern badge and my Pink Floyd badge too. I don't have my Larkin badge though because I've not read all his jazz reviews.

I'm nowhere near as bad as I used to be but it would please me no end if I had a guest and they mentioned an interest in some composer and I could stick a CD on for them. As for authors, forget it, too many of the buggers to hope to make a similar offer. Part of the reason for that is that I have much wider musical tastes than I have literary tastes. If I read a book by an author these days it has to be an extraordinary read for me to seek out another book by them.

That said, I always make sure my daughter has the next Douglas Coupland to add to her collection and she has more Tori Amos that anyone in a right mind would ever want to listen to, so I guess I'm living out my need to collect things vicariously through her. The same goes for Carrie with her Leonard Cohen and Jeanette Winterson. I still like sets, collections. My wall of CDs pleases me no end even if I never listened to another one, just the look of them, like little volumes, row upon row of them.

But the question I really want to ask, because I don’t have an answer, is what is it about us that can't say enough is enough? How many of you when they discover an author that excites them will work their way through their entire canon as if that's a way of showing people how much they rank that particular writer, a kind of award.

I wonder what Beckett would think about me going to such trouble to own copies of his writing as well as DVDs and CDs covering his radio, stage and film work? He'd probably say I'd more money than sense. And he'd probably be right.


Anonymous said...

The Beckett and the Brautigan (I have all of his books too)I understand but 60 Tangerine Dream Albums, Jim? That is going a bit too far.

Art Durkee said...

There's an elusive and ever-receding pleasure in trying to complete a collection, whether literary or trinkets. I don't collect many things, and for those things I do collect there are only two reasons: I'm interested; and it's fun.

I'm a compleatist about things that interest me not because I care if anyone gives me a merit badge for being a compleatist but rather because anything I'm really interested in I want to learn and know everything I can know and learn. I don't set out to be scholar, but I end up being one simply because I've uncovered everything I can. When I go out of my way to acquire or find something I'm interested in, it's the relentless pursuit of data. I was trained as a scientist (life sciences and geology, mostly), and the researcher's instincts became deeply rooted in me early on.

The fun aspect is because learning something I didn't know is itself inherently fun. A lot of the data I learn, and enjoy learning, I never get the chance to pass on, or share. But it's all tucked away in my mind, and when I write, it re-emerges in the form of associations and connections, the sorts of connections poets make. I can synthesize a lot of data into an overview that (it seems sometimes) no one else has thought about before, or at least from that perspective. If I discover some scholar HAD thought about it before, I don't feel crushed, I feel validated. I don't often care who knows or cares how brilliant I am; that's not my motivation.

I'm just interested in everything, that's all.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yeah, Paul, I have to agree that Tangerine Dream thing got a wee bit out of hand (and I didn't include also the solo albums I have either which includes 15 of the Babylon 5 soundtracks alone). And for all that I've got I'm still missing – in fact I've never heard – the very early albums, Atem, Zeit and Electronic Meditation. The thing is, if I come across one I've not got I still get into a slavver over it.

And, Art, my big problem is absorbing all I read. Take, Beckett for example, I have more books about Beckett that I have books by Beckett and I've pretty much read them all including all three biographies but all I found was that my head was swimming with too much information. My wife says I should regard myself an expert on Beckett. I shy away from that because although I know a lot I couldn't stand up and take questions from the audience with any degree of confidence. And I think that's a part of the problem with being a completist. Think of it in aural terms, why did Reich stop at 6 pianos? After a while it all goes blurry.

I find comfort in collecting things. And purpose too, even though a lot of the time the things collected have no real purpose other than they please me. And achievement. There are so many things in this life that I haven't achieved but at least I have had a full set of Man from Uncle trading cards. Christ, that makes me sound so sad.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Jim, but I think I'm with Paul on Tangerine Dream. With me it's John Cowper Powys and books about Gypsies. When we moved three years ago, we had to have an 18' x 10' shed built at the bottom of the garden to house the greater part of my general book collection, which runs into thousands.

As for why we can't simply stop, my partner Emma believes that it's an extreme manifestation of the general autism from which she believes the vast majority of men suffers. I just nod solemnly and agree as I fork out for yet another volume.

McGuire said...

We collect that which we are never capable of producing.

Well, I don't know, that thought just came to me. But there is some shining truth in it. You love to read, so do I, and we love to sort the wheat we disocver, from the chaff dismiss. When you discover a writer, and they punch you with their words, with what can only be described as something near the truth, you want to read more, you want to elaborate on that understanding, get the gist of them, get to know them.

We do this by collecting more of their works, pumelling the abyss of the literary or artistic canon. But why do people do it? Do you intend to leave our book collections, or music collections or DVD collections in our Will? Perhaps.

Are we simply vast horders of junk, albiet, precious junk too many, the security provided by 'collectiing' is obvious, it is familiar, we can refer to it at all times, it becomes 'what we know' and we can't live without what we know (even if we don't understand it).

I'm not sure when enough is enough. Someone once said, if you can't fit your life into one suit case, you are living in a delusion. I believe that in manys; we surround ourselves with foolish objects - things we foolishly love - because we engaged with life.

Personally, my only really collections are books. I don't collect them per se but they are the only commodity I buy with regularity from poetry to philosopy to oddity. My C.D. collection has frozen solid, no longer buying them online or in a shop, tending only to listen to what I have or what is online.

Unless I marry or find a partner, I think I'll give all my belongings, books and C.D.s and DVD's to Goodwill Charity.

We collect the things we love, that which speaks ot us like truth, that which looks like the beautiful, that which resembles the image of ourselves and the world.

Allow me to collect my thoughts. ;P


You nailed it for me when you said that collecting comforts you. It comforts me, as well. I don't know how to explain it other than by comparing it to being surrounded by kind friends.

Conda Douglas said...

I may be at the opposite end of the spectrum to you, Jim. I've lived by Thoreau's adage, "Simplify, simplify," EXCEPT when it comes to the tools of a writer: pens mostly, I lust for pens and have...too many to count.

jonathan pinnock said...

Reminds me of the friend of a friend who, when someone complimented him on his large CD collection, said "Oh, no, that's just The Grateful Dead". I've got about half your number of TD albums, although one of them is "Tyger", which is the one that should ring alarm bells.

Great post, BTW.

Anonymous said...

You would be a great fan Jim, lol...I don't have the passion you have in collecting what you want. I collected stamps too, one big, book binder. I can't find them any longer when we transferred from place to place. I had also collected miniature objects; my favorite was a miniature coke bottle with real coke in it. But, yes, I lost it too.

Regarding movies, I've watched a newly acclaimed movie "The Slumdog Millionare" and I must say, I was impressed. Even the Golden Globe critics have awarded it the "Best Motion Picture-Drama". I'm curious of your reaction. Would you be kind enough to write a review for your blogger friends? lol...I hope I'm not committing a faux pas by requesting it me if I did. But I'm truly interested in how you evaluate the positive and negative points of the movie- much more the positive.

Thanks and God bless.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dick, I think your Emma may well have a point there. I suspect I'm trying to put the whole world in some semblance of order. I've often thought that my ideal job would be working in a library or even as a filing clerk. The only thing is that once I had the shelves in order I wouldn't want to let anyone take anything out.

McGuire, it's an interesting point of view but I'm not sure that it would stand up to closer scrutiny. I 'collect' my poem in a big red binder, numbered sequentially, for example, and I get a great deal of pleasure every time I pick up the thing and flick through its pages.

There is, of course, a symbolic aspect to collecting. I have a house full of Garfields for example. And I think my wife bought every single one of them. She got carried away, that's all, and a lot of them went back on E-bay in time, but every time I see one of them I'm reminded of her. We could have kept going and started on some of the rarer ones but – and this is my point – enough is enough, point made, Nowadays I get small mindings, a Garfield rubber and pencil sharpener or a Garfield Pez dispenser, things that don't take up much room because we're running out.

I'm not sure I regard any of my collections as 'friends', Susan. The comfort I get is from putting them in order. It's a displacement exercise I'm sure. I do it in shops. If I find a book out of sequence I'll restore it to its proper place.

Ah, Conda, pens, yes. I have way too many pens. Especially for a guy who hardly does more than sign his name these days. I even write poems on a computer. But I do love them. I actually wrote a fair chunk of my last novel with a fountain pen my daughter bought me. I guess because I began writing with pen and paper I have no problems switching back and forth.

Jonathan, you know I don't have a single Grateful Dead album. I've always thought being a Deadhead was more of a lifestyle choice than anything else and the music was by the by. It is a great name for a band. And so is Tangerine Dream. I do have Tyger in my collection, an old tape so it doesn't get played too often. I don't hate it – it's the words that get in the way when I'm working. Apart from the classic albums probably my favourites are Sohoman and Quinoa.

And, Jena, stamps was the first thing I collected. I think one of my nieces ended up with them. I know she got my coin collection.

As for The Slumdog Millionare, the reviews sound promising and I will get round to it in time but I rarely got to the cinema these days. I've been once in the last two years and that was purely to see The Dark Knight. I'll go for Warchmen and Star Trek (films that need a big screen) but I expect that'll be it this year. Besides I prefer to keep my site as a literary blog. This does not mean I'll never review a film – I have one sitting by me right now which I've been meaning to get round to for a while (and I've got an audio CD to do too) – so I'll have to decline.

Anonymous said...

That's okay, at least I've tried. lol..I hope someone does the review. Thanks for replying. I look forward to the audio book review, I've been planning to download some.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's not an audio book, Jena, but a one man show. I just keep forgetting I have it.

Dave King said...

I'm not sure about you final question. I'm not sure what it is in us that makes us collectors in the first place. And is it true - and if so, why? - that it is men rather than women who collect?
As for your point about what more could there possibly be to say, I think there is always another angle, another spin to give it, if you like.
The universe is composed of self-alikenesses. Much of its beauty is, at least. And so are we. We don't knock mountains because they look not much different from other mountains, do we?

Anonymous said...

I think collecting is a good habit to kick. You can only read one book at a time, only listen to one CD at a time. Gloating over possessing an object isn't a very satisfying pleasure.

Glad you like Oldfield. Ommadawn is his best, I think. I haven't heard the hippyesque album - that sounds good. He went downhill after Ommadawn, though. And Tangerine Dream have been in sad decline for decades.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, drodbar, I know what you mean. But in defence of Mike Oldfield - who has also released a few none-too-inspiring albums - I would suggest you locate a copy of his last album, Music of the Spheres. It is a serious return to form, a mature work. All that's missing from the piece is uproarious applause at the end.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jim. Oldfield's melodic, pastoral music of the 70s was a wonderful aberration from rock norms. An appealingly vulnerable, pleasantly introverted man, again unfittingly for a rock star. I'm glad his new album is good, I'll give it a listen.

Please don't take offence at this, but may I say that I would enjoy reading your thoughtful dissertations a little more if I didn't see my a record of my viewing displayed on the site for all to see? It makes me feel exposed.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's been a while since a piece of music has excited me as much as Music of the Spheres, drodbar. There are a couple of videos on YouTube if you want to check them out. As for the widget, it's history.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, Jim. I wasn't expecting such a response to my comment about the widget, but I am pleased that it's gone.

Thanks also for the Oldfield recommendation. I've looked at the You Tube videos and I agree it is very good.

Marcy said...

"I shy away from [regarding myself an expert on Beckett] because although I know a lot I couldn't stand up and take questions from the audience with any degree of confidence."

Actually, I would bet that you could to some degree. Based on my experience, I would guess that the only difference between you and those who do regard themselves "experts" is that you actually admit to not knowing things.

I am so enjoying your words, by the way.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Marcy. You've actually given me the idea for a whole new blog. It's not finished yet but watch this space.

Marcy said...

I look forward to it, Jim ... consider this space watched.

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