Notes from the Past

Critical Mess Collecting

The subject of the article from which the following is excerpted is Michael Zinman, an aggressive book collector who has built and sold or donated a number of important collections.  He is an eclectic collector with a number of collection/accumulations.  For example, a recent interest is the purchase of cardboard signs used at the roadside by the homeless.  Zinman is basically a very skillful trader/broker who makes his living by brokering such things as Caterpillar tractors.  His approach to collecting was described by Mr. Reese, his bibliographer.  Zinman had just sold his collection of early American imprints -- books and other imprinted paper -- to the Library Company in Philadelphia.  The collection, valued at $8 million, was one of the very important collections of such materials and undoubtedly the largest outside of an institution.
    "The most intriguing thing is how a collection like Michael's gets built," Reese said, by way of explaining the practical ramifications of the critical-mess theory.  "When you start on something like this, you say, O.K., here is a genre, here is a field.  And I'm just going to buy it, whatever it is that I'm collecting -- signs from homeless people, imprints froom before 1801.  You don't start with a theory about what you're trying to do.  You don't begin by saying, 'I'm trying to prove x.'  You build a big pile.  Once you get a big enough pile together -- the critical mess -- you're able to draw conclusions about it.  You see patterns.  You might see that this one lithographer in Philadelphia does all the scientific works.  You start to see that certain early printers were much better than other printers.  You start to see that homeless people in the South put together wordier signs than people in the North because people in the South like to read billboards, so they'll slow down and read the sign.  People who have the greatest intuitive feel for physical objects start from a relationship with the objects and then acquire the scholarship, instead of the other way around.  The way to become a connoisseur is to work in the entire spectrum of what's available -- from utter crap to fabulous stuff.  If you're going to spend your time looking only at the best, you're not going to have a critical eye.

"Michael went about this by crawling around book fairs and antique shows and going to see crackpots in the country and bartering and using any number of Zinmanesque devices.  Certain institutions collected Early American imprints during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but then a time came when they no longer had the money to do it.  From 1920 on -- until Michael got active, in the early eighties -- hardly anyone paid attention to this stuff.  He started out just picking up all the float, whatever was in the market.  After that, stuff started coming out of attics and estate sales.  And that's the amazing thing -- that, at a point when everybody said you can't form a collection on this scale because it's all in institutions already, he went ahead and did it.  And now nobody can ever do it again."

"Zinman's determined to a fault, " a New England book scout named Matthew Needle told me.  "He'll call people day and night.  He won't browbeat them necessarily, but he has a way.  He starts the conversation: 'What'd you buy yesterday?  What have you got for me?'  Social niceties were never his strong suit."

Steve Weissman, formerly a book dealer in New York, now living in England:  "Michael has persistence, but he doesn't have patience.  Voracity is a kind of impatient quality.  He's incapable of waiting even for a nice copy.  But he knows it when he sees it."


- Mark Singer
"The Book Eater"
The New Yorker, February 5, 2001

 Posted March 24,  2001

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