- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

By Susan Sheehan and Howard Means
Simon & Schuster, $25, 299 pages

Generally speaking, the most interesting people are those who are most interested, and the people featured in this unfortunately titled book are interested, indeed. By almost any definition, some are more than interested, they are obsessed, being preoccupied with matters that would strike many of the more sober citizenry as odd, notional, even flaky.
As is indicated by the subtitle of Susan Sheehan and Howard Means' "The Banana Sculptor, the Purple Lady, and the All-Night Swimmer: Hobbies, Collecting, and Other Passionate Pursuits," the people featured are all collectors of one sort or other, and the things they collect extend from the somewhat predictable to the farthest shores of eccentricity. Among the more conventional is Leonard Lauder, the CEO of Estee Lauder, Inc., who with his wife collects fine art; but he himself has a special feel and passion for inexpensive postcards.
Years ago as a small boy in Manhattan, he would go on walks with his nanny and seek out and buy postcards for a penny each. Now he has 200,000 in his collection, and he prizes them in their own way as much as he does his celebrated collection of Cubist art. Like the most sophisticated collectors, Mr. Lauder finds a rationale for his passion, pointing out that "the postcard has its place in the history of communication."
Others in the book collect such things as pre-cancelled stamps and playing marbles (the latter collector with a million of the little devils, also has a passion for dandelions and bought a 10-acre lot for growing them). Then there's John Sylvester who collects Indo-Chinese medals and military decorations of various sorts, while Judy Connerth collects toys featuring representations of Noah's Ark.
Among the most adventurous of this adventurous breed, however, are those who do not collect things, but adventures. Consider Peter Holden who collects visiting McDonald's drive-ins 10,509 at the last count, and that's just in the United States. Then there's Jim Dreyer who collects the Great Lakes not the actual lakes of course, but the experiences and memories of swimming across them. Collections such as his are seriously limited in number, of course; and Mr. Dreyer has gathered only four of the five (some in different directions), while Lake Superior remains unconquered although many believe that if anyone can conquer it, he is the one. It was in swimming Lake Michigan that Mr. Dreyer found that he could swim while asleep. "It's a very happy state of mind," he said, "but you can swim away from your support ship." This is cautionary advice we should all keep in mind.
As a bibliophile, I am most interested in other book collectors and have the secret conviction that if those who collect coins and stamps and matchbook covers ever grow up, they'll start collecting books. My personal bigotry aside, however, anybody will find Walter Pforzheimer's collection of 10,000 books on spying and military intelligence impressive. Mr. Pforzheimer, himself, has a reputation that shines in that dark world, being one of the "Old Boys" from the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency. Along with his personal espionage library, Mr. Pforzheimer owns Mata Hari's last visa application, admitting her into France, where she was executed; Herman Goering's personal phone directory; and a letter from George Washington, arguing for the necessity of gathering secret intelligence. According to Mr. Pforzheimer, Washington was "the first and greatest of American intelligence officers" an endorsement possessed of great authority, emphasizing the fact that collecting books is itself first and foremost a gathering of intelligence, although seldom secret.
Like Mr. Pforzheimer, Harry Kloman is a bachelor and a book collector; his passion, however, is building a library consisting of the books of Gore Vidal. Considering Mr. Vidal's popularity, this is an interesting challenge; and, indeed, Mr. Kloman has copies of Vidal titles in 28 foreign languages; and at the time of his first interview was eagerly awaiting adding Persian as the 29th foreign language and the ninth foreign alphabet. Shortly after that, however, a Vidal title appeared in Hebrew, making that the 30th language and 10th alphabet in his Vidal collection. Mr. Kloman, who describes himself as a "book whore," says, "I don't want to complete the collection and I probably never will."
It is this sentiment that comes nearest to uniting the various hungers of those featured in this book. All collectors can understand the poetry of plenitude. Leonard Lauder says, "I prefer infinity to completion." And as the authors state in the preface (one of the book's best parts), people do not commit themselves to such extravagant enterprises for frivolous reasons. Nor is a study of them frivolous: "Of necessity, a passionate pursuit is a window into a life's history into the deep roots and complicated forces that propel us to devote so much of our time to something that might seem trivial or narrow to others."
At the beginning of this review, I objected to the book's title, doing so because I find it cute and silly; pandering too obviously to the most vulgar stereotype of that great abstraction, "the Market." But evidently it was first titled "Extreme Pleasures a far better title, representative of the book's virtues. My cavil is not, goodness knows, a plea for solemnity, which we can leave to those Political Correctors, who've planted their flags upon the cheerless desert of self-righteousness.
And indeed our lives would be sadly impoverishsed without a touch of the odd, notional, eccentric and even flaky. For my witness, I will call Sonia Young, the Purple Lady of Chatanooga. As suggested by her epithet, she is profoundly committed to the color purple. She wears purple clothing and lives in a house that is as nearly purple as a house can be. Her furniture is purple, she wears purple rings and her three white Maltese dogs all wear purple collars. She is the subject of a two-foot sculpture titled "The Purple Lady." Sonia Young is purple in just about every way that counts and is quoted as saying: "I believe everyone should put a little or a lot of purple in his or her life."
Now who could argue with that? For him or her to do so would be unpurple.

Jack Matthews is professor of English at Ohio University.

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