Some people collect books based on subjects or time periods. Others collect more on the basis of quality. And then, there are people who collect in quantity, a type of collecting that generally requires not being too choosy. Most collectors fall into one of the first two categories. The quantity collectors are harder to understand. Why do they do this? If there is a connecting factor, it's that they have a deep love for books.
This is the story of the book collection of the late Tom Verlaine. He may not be a household name, nor well-known in book collecting circles, but he was famed in an unexpected field for a book collector, punk rock music. Verlaine was the front man for the seminal 1970s punk rock band Television. They were particularly well-known in the New York scene, contemporaries who polished their craft at the same locales as the Ramones and Patti Smith. Co-founder of the band with Verlaine was another punk star, the inimitable Richard Hell, but he went to... no, not there. He formed another band.
Verlaine played music, but in his free time, when not on tour, he would go book shopping, particularly at the famed Strand in New York. He bought from the discount or dollar books. His taste tended to be somewhat eclectic, collecting literature, music and art, but also the occult, mysticism and spirituality. Commenting on his books in a tribute in the New Yorker, Patti Smith wrote, “Examining each other’s bookcases, we were amazed to find that our books were nearly identical, even those by authors difficult to find. Cossery, Hedayat, Tutuola, Mrabet. We were both independent literary scouts, and we came to share our secret sources.”
In all, his collection ran to 50,000 books. No one can read 50,000 books, not even in a lifetime. What his relationship with them was is not clear. While not reading your books may not sound right, you can think of such book collecting like collections of coins or stamps. You don't do anything with them other than enjoy their presence. We imagine that's how Verlaine interacted with his books.
Verlaine died in January. His books will be sold in a series of “garage sales” by Better Read Than Dead in New York, in cooperation with Capitol Hill Books. The sales began late last month and will continue for a while, no doubt. The first sale reportedly brought out a large crowd, people waiting in long lines to get in. The interest was more in Verlaine and what he collected than simply 50,000 cheap books.