Tuesday, August 25, 2009

This is Your Brain on Books

There has been a spate of recent books covering new research upon how our brains work and the human decision-making process. Madeleine Bunting, at the Guardian, nicely sums up the science and its implications. It turns out that just about all of our assumptions about free-will, autonomy, and rationality in our choices and decisions are chimerical.

I was reminded of this just the other day when I received the following note from a close friend and rare book collector with a Ph.D,, and who has been certified as sane. His first note limns an extraordinary find in which serendipity smiled upon him and became a book collector’s manna from heaven.

“The girl on the telephone told me she thought she had an ex-library copy of Haschisch (Yiddish, 1911) by Lemmermayer.* Hard bound without a cover. I described the wrapper with the partially naked Djinn emerging in the smoke of a hookah. She thought she had seen that before and would look around. Inside a storage room on a dusty shelf inside a plastic bag she found five copies with covers in various states of wear and condition. I bought them all for $12. (twelve dollars) each.

“I'm still trapped in the hookah smoke. I'll believe it when UPS delivers the books.

“Yes, I also bought the 1898 German edition (illustrated) to keep it company in my vault.”

Brothers and sisters, in thirty years I have only seen two copies of the Yiddish edition of Lemmermayer’s Haschisch, to the best of my knowledge the one and only drug-themed book ever issued in that mélange of Hebrew and Middle-German. So, I replied:

“Sacred Fornicating Manure! Five copies? $12 each? Max yikes!"

His reposte:

“Five is what she said but I don't know if she was counting the ex-library copy or not. I have sold/traded duplicates in the past but have always regretted it and continue to be haunted by the ‘loss,’ especially as the value has increased more than the interest on my money. I am anal and possessive to a fault. Now that I have [ ]’s collection, with dozens of duplicates, I want to keep everything. I am also so possessed with book scouting and acquisition now that I am seriously considering taking some of my retirement money (it ain't earning much these days) and trying to acquire [ ]’s stuff as it becomes available on the market. “

What is revealing is his firm desire to keep everything – a completist gone off the rails – and his willingness to tap his retirement savings to pursue rare books, thus providing proof-positive that we book collectors are an irrational lot no matter how sharp or wise we think ourselves to be in our acquisitions.

The rationale that his retirement income is not earning enough money and that he may do better by acquiring multiples of every book in every edition in his area of collecting is clearly one based not upon the real world but one of his own creation.

This decision comes from the amygdala, not the prefrontal cortex which, amongst other functions, is supposed to mediate amongst and temper the emotions to assist with executive functions, i.e. decision-making. But this is your brain on rare drug books. Yet it could be any genre of rare book collection. This is where Nicholas Basbane’s Gentle Madness flares into full-blown nuts.

*Fritz Lemmermayer (1857-1932), Austrian journalist and novelist. The wrapper illustration to this book, as described above, is one of the most striking and evocative that I have ever seen.

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