Hey, Kids, Collect them All: The Awful Truth About Completism
I suspect the syndrome began when I read the backs of serial packets in the 1950s and was urged by the manufacturers of Shredded Wheat and Rice Crispies to make sure that I had the complete set of the plastic Space Men/Pirates/Guardsmen/Divers/Miniature Nuclear Submarines that they were offering. Sadly, I was rarely able to eat enough Rice Crispies or Shredded Wheat to succeed: but the lust for the complete set was planted.
I think in literature the process began with the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge, if only because the art on the dust jackets of the adventures of the boys at Jennings school was so colorful and full of delight.
Interestingly, although I loved Captain W.E.Johns’ Biggles books, I was never tempted to try to collect them all because there was simply so many– and the same applied to Richmal Compton’s magnificent William books.
I think the enthusiasm for complete sets really took hold courtesy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At the age of 11, a newly arrived emigrant in New Zealand and staying at a Salvation Army hostel in Cuba Street, Wellington, I discovered in the window of the bookstore opposite a hardback copy of the John Murray edition of His Last Bow. It had a white cover decorated with the magnificent painting of Sherlock Holmes holding, of all things, a cockerel. It was some years before I was able to get a copy for myself and by that time I had discovered that the painting was one of a whole series of Holmes which decorated the covers of all the books in the Collected edition from The Adventures onwards.
By the time I began collecting them, these editions were long out of print, so it was only when I was able to track one down in an obscure secondhand bookshop in Palmerston North, or Hastings, or Montreal, or Sydney that I was able to add it to my collection. The problem was that in the course of finding them I came across the Collected Long Stories and the Collected Short Stories – and though they obviously duplicated the individual volumes, their sheer solidity and charming old covers obliged me to get them.
And once I had them, how could I resist buying the compendium volumes of the Professor Challenger stories, and the Historical Romances? Except, while looking for them I discovered the individual volumes of novels like The Lost World or Micha Clark had also come out with white dust jackets and artwork very similar to the Sherlock Holmes editions I’d started out with. So of course I had to have them.
Then there’s John Buchan. Like every red blooded male at the age of about 13 I fell in love with The 39 Steps, and then found out that Hodder and Stoughton had to put all the Richard Hannay novels in a compendium volume, which I tracked down assiduously and devoured. Only to discover that after that volume was published John Buchan had written two more Richard Hannay novels, The Courts of Morning and The Island of Sheep. So to complete the set I had to track them down too. I remember the great satisfaction of finding the last of them in a used bookstore in the grounds of a National Trust stately home in Norfolk. (By the way, can there be many greater pleasures in life than going to a magnificent historic house and finding a secondhand bookshop on your way out?)
But to return to John Buchan. Once I had that lovely fat compendium volume of the Richard Hannay novels how could I resist an almost identical one about another, lesser known Buchan hero, Sir Edward Leithen? Which proved to be full of wonderful stories, notably The Dancing Floor. (if anyone could send me a photograph of the dust jacket for this, by the way I would be in seventh heaven.) And once I had Sir Edward it turned out there was another heroic character Buchan had invented called Dickson McCunn, who had his own compendium volume, (which contains the charming Huntingtower) and that had to be tracked down and added to the set. To my relief it turned out there was only one more compendium: a compilation of historical novels called A Five-Fold Salute to Adventure.
Which of course I now have.
There, I think that is enough embarrassing revelations about my lust for complete sets of books by a particular author. I will refrain from discussing my adventures with the works of Hammond Innes, Iris Murdoch or Alistair Maclean – or perhaps save them for another time.
To those of you who share my obsession – salutations. Indeed, as the gladiators use to say before entering one of ancient Rome’s secondhand bookshops – We who are about to buy salute you.
Author, The Age of Treachery