(A talk given to the Victorian branch in May 2008)
MY FAMILY context is a good place to start talking about how I began to collect. My father is Richard Overell, the Secretary of the Book Collectors Society of Australia (Victorian Branch). I think it worth situating my own collecting in relation to his influence. Though my father is passionate about books, works in the Rare Books Library at Monash and, indeed, virtually runs this Society branch, he is not a collector of collectible books. That is, in the sense that my father does not harbour vellum bound tomes, rare first editions and one-off artist‘s imprints. This is not to say he does not own many, many books, or that his library is not ‘a collection’.
My childhood memories are suffused with books. I remember the second bedroom of our house in Oakleigh keeling under the weight of cases and cases of Dad‘s books. But these books were inherently ordinary. Dad had the complete collection of Arden Shakespeare (with notes), any number of OUP paperbacks and countless tatty cookbooks. He also kept piles of harness-racing form-guides, posters from political rallies and pamphlets left at our door by Jehovah‘s Witnesses in his book room. In short, my father valued his books as cultural objects — things which, no matter how ordinary, could tell us something about the culture from which they arose. In this way, the Arden Shakespeare‘s voluminous notes, informing me, as a Year Ten, Eleven and Twelve student about the intricacies of Elizabethan life in relation to The Merchant of Venice or Macbeth work in a similar way to political posters: they both tell us something about the society which made them. This ‘ordinary’ influence perhaps laid the seeds for my academic career. I am currently embarking on a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, following from an Honours degree in the same field. Cultural Studies prides itself on the value of the ordinary. Its ‘founder’, Raymond Williams, famously stated that the aim of Cultural Studies was to recognise culture as ‘a whole way of life’ rather than simply the ‘high culture’ of art, theatre, and indeed, ‘high literature’. Cultural Studies practitioners seek to find meaning in all aspects of our cultural lives — from sports and supermarket shopping, to reality television shows. In Cultural Studies we understand these practices and cultural forms as equivalent to literary texts; as processes and things which can tell us something about the culture in which they are consumed or engaged with.
Thus, I wish to situate my own collecting as a cultural practice — it‘s partly inherited, from my father; it’s about self-fashioning (what do my books say about me?) and it‘s a choice to value and collect the books whose themes and imagery speak to me. I am interested in what my books have to say, in my own cultural context, as well as in the cultural context in which they were produced.
With these introductory comments in mind, I will track my own collection story and will emphasise, as is flagged in the title of this paper, that this is an ongoing process. I am only just beginning. My earliest memories of actually engaging with books — that is apart from the overwhelming ‗bookishness‘ of my father‘s book room — is of being read to by Dad, and by my Mother, who is also a librarian and passionate about books. My parents‘ hippie youths led them to discourage my sister and me from television watching. Instead, we were encouraged to play outside, do free drawing — yes even colouring-in books were banned in our house due to their tethering of youthful imaginations — and, of course, we were encouraged to love books. My Mum even developed a space in our ‘playroom’ called ‘Story Corner’ — a tan beanbag where she would read my sister and me books like Orlando, Possum Magic and Peepo. We were never at a loss for books. We received them every birthday from our large extended family. I rarely remember, at that age, ever borrowing books from the public library, except for one time when Mum borrowed a book called Yoga for Kids and my sister and I had great fun trying the different postures.
Meanwhile, my mother had, and did, the Jane Fonda Workout — a book which I have returned to in my twenties! While we had many books at this time, my parents did not let us read ‘just anything’. Despite repeated nagging, they never buckled and bought us the ‘Ladybird’ books available at supermarket cash registers. Grug books were also outlawed, on account of them being ugly — interestingly, the same justification was used against my pleas for a Cabbage Patch Doll. And Dr Seuss was deemed silly and boring for imaginative children like my sister and me.
We were allowed to read Golden Books. After reading Goodbye Tonsils I yearned to have my tonsils removed, just so I could eat endless bowls of ice-cream like the girl in the story. In The Happy Family I wondered if anyone‘s family really was that happy, and I was a little sceptical of the daughter and mother‘s beaming smiles as they washed up the dishes while the son and father played ball in the backyard. My favourite, though, was The Poky Little Puppy series. However this was not without trauma! My copy of this Poky Little Puppy Follows His Nose Home was sold from under my own nose at a garage sale! I cried and cried, though my parents eventually replaced it!
These early judgements in taste certainly influenced my own later collecting. I valued the ordinary, but not the too ordinary. I grew up in the eighties and nineties, a time when political correct-ness was gaining ascendance. This was reflected in the books I encountered. In the Ramona series by Beverley Cleary, the heroine was a gutsy tomboy, who played sports, made ‘A’s at school and refused to wear skirts. Her dolls were called Bendix and Chevrolet, demonstrating the complex ways in which young women relate to gender identity: suddenly a ‘dolly’ comes to represent hard, masculine machinery.
My first real collection was of $7.95 paperback Babysitter’s Club books by Ann M Martin. Dad probably remembers these as vividly as I do — he read almost 80 to my sister and me over about five years! These books were perhaps the epitome of 1990s identity politics — political correctness? Here we had a club, run by young women, like a business, with a president, phone line and a corporate slogan. Further, Martin‘s characters represented the multiculturalism of contemporary Western life — we had Claudia Kishi, a Japanese girl mad about fashion; Hannie Papadakis, an (oddly named) Jewish girl; Jessie, an African-American ballerina; and Mallory, whose red hair and large family represented an Irish-Catholic identity.
Martin‘s books confronted issues surrounding blended families. The Babysitter‘s Club (BSC) was full of step-siblings and half-siblings, single fathers and grandparent families. I loved these stories and strongly identified with the themes discussed. Growing up in Melbourne in the 1990s meant I encountered people of different ethnicities, classes and family backgrounds. Martin‘s message was one of optimism and positivity. Despite the obstacles associated with divorce, remarriage and being non-white in a white neighbourhood, the babysitters always overcame their struggles. The ultimate message was always one of ‘sameness through diversity’ and of multicultural solidarity; that banding together under a common banner of humanity was more useful than rupturing into fissured interest groups.
So influential were these books on me and my peer group that we began our own ‘club’ — the ‘Rad Readers’ with a similar structure to the BSC of Martin‘s books. At our own club meetings we would act out scenarios from our favourite books, almost invariably the BSC. These meetings reflected something of a multicultural melange with members from Korean and Greek backgrounds in attendance. Our ultimate conversion to political correctness was observable in the willingness to let ‘someone other than Jane Kim’ pretend to be Claudia Kishi in our re-enactments. I treasured my BSC books but never had the book-shelf space to house them. Thus they ended up for years in a cane laundry basket in my bedroom. As they were numbered I arranged them numerically, fanning out in a layered spiral from #1 Kristy’s Big Idea through Super Specials like #4 Babysitters’ Island Adventure to the later, and I would argue, inferior, ‘mystery’ titles like #3 Mallory and the Ghost Cat. I preferred the empowered female role models in the BSC to other contemporary serialised children‘s fiction such as Sweet Valley High whose outmoded dating rituals and make-up marathons I took great pleasure in laughing at.
This is not to say I did not enjoy books which arguably foregrounded outdated representations of gender and ethnicity. Even with a 1990s politically correct sensibility, I devoured Enid Blyton‘s numerous works. Again, my parents were influential here. Many of the battered copies of Secret Seven and Five Find-Outers belonged to them, and had been passed down through their younger siblings to us. A testament to the many owners is the scribbles on the flyleaves and jackets. The dustwrap-pers often feature an image stretching round the front and back.
Blyton‘s stories have classic plots — formulaic, maybe, but providing the reader with the satisfaction of ‘playing detective’, identifying the ‘baddie’ (often male, sometimes a smuggler, and always hating dogs) and solving the crime through spectacular deceptions such as disguises.
Despite their being written much earlier, Blyton‘s books offered me the same pleasure as the BSC, particularly all the talk about club meetings, clubhouses and the club comradeship which runs through all her books. At primary school my ‘chums’ and I were keen to find our own mysteries to solve and were disappointed that nothing as exciting as what Peter, Sue et al. in The Secret Seven encountered ever cropped up on the streets of Clayton. Again, mystery clubs were formed — what better place than our tree house for a clubhouse? Though disappointment ensued when my parents‘ idea of ‘club food’ consisted of brown fairy bread and home-made orange juice, rather than the melting moments and lemonade in Blyton‘s books.
While I loved these stories, I always understood them as products of another earlier time — I remember finding Bessie in the Faraway Tree a terribly prissy character and laughing at her insistence on always wearing a dress. The context in which I was living inflected my reading of Blyton‘s books. This actually meant a heightened recognition of the power which Blyton ‘really does give her female characters’. While she has often been the subject of character assassination for her representation of women, I would argue she in fact grants the girls in her stories a considerable amount of agency. Far from receding into the background, as in, say, the Hardy Boys stories, Blyton‘s female characters are often the main players, and more often than not the ones who actually ‘crack the case’.
Think of Peter‘s annoying sister Sue in Secret Seven — irritating yes, but it is she who is sharp enough to see through the villain‘s various disguises and beat Mr Plod to the capture. The same could be said for Lucy in Five Find-Outers. And let‘s not even start on the potential ‘queer’ readings of Fatty‘s penchant for cross-dressing!
The strongest and most radical female identity in Blyton‘s work is George (real name Georgina) in the Famous Five. She was
my favourite — gutsy, loud and a tomboy — her boyishness highlighted through the blunt distinction between her and perhaps Blyton‘s drippiest female character, George‘s wussy cousin Anne. Here, Blyton foreshadows the later Politically Correct (PC) revolution and even ‘out-PCs’ the BSC in perhaps the first portrayal of a transgendered character in children‘s fiction!
I also read Australian children‘s novels at this time, particularly the work of Nan Chauncy, whose tales of the Tasmanian wilderness were fascinating and provided much fodder for my sister and me to ‘act out’ on one of our many bushwalks at Churchill Park.
While I was not actually buying books for myself at this age, I was a collector in some ways, as I always had an idea of what book I wanted to be bought for me! I received books for birthdays, Christmas and even as a prize for stopping chewing my fingernails (on that occasion it was Pippi in the South Seas). Interestingly, and perhaps a foreshadowing of my later career, these books were generally purchased at one of Melbourne‘s various secondhand bookshops rather than Collins or Angus & Robertson. By the nineties, Dad was working at Monash and knew all the local dealers. My Mum worked at Nick Dawes‘ Elwood Village shop for a time, a role to which she has now returned; she works Saturdays at Grants. My parents‘ involvement in the secondhand book world meant I spent many Saturday mornings pawing through the children‘s sections at Elwood Village, Alice‘s and John Dean‘s. It was here that I was lucky enough to be able to choose hardcover copies of Blyton and Chauncy books. Needless to say, the BSC was probably a bit downmarket for these shops and I had to go to A & R to pick them out!
As I grew older I continued to read books I could relate to by Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. While I had enjoyed the Narnia books as a child, I was never one for fantasy fiction and found Tolkien‘s work rather dull, even when he was enjoying a popular revival in line with the release of the Lord of the Rings films. I fancied I had a strong enough imagination not to have to depend on someone else imagining imaginary worlds for me!
Of course, I went through a stage of devouring everything written about the Second World War — The Diary of Anne Frank, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Machine Gunners. I used to look back at this phase and think ‘oh how morose!’ especially considering my sister and I used to ‘act out’ being carted off to concentration camps and hiding from the Nazis etc. However, I recently saw Australian actress Rachel Griffiths being interviewed on Denton and she recalled a similar stage in her reading tastes, and commented that almost every young woman goes through it. I felt much better after that — I share the same tastes as a movie star!
Once I began high school, though, much of my reading time was given over to swotting, so sadly apart from the set texts of Harp in the South and Fly Away Peter, I read very little in my teens, though I did go through a James Baldwin patch and also read Salinger and that adolescent staple 1984. However, I began working part-time during school and thus had a limited amount of disposable income, some of which I spent on books.
The mid nineties was the era of ‘grunge’ — retro was in, we all wore clothes from op-shops with terrible irony and listened to rock music which ‘referenced’ the psychedelic music of the sixties and seventies. To be hip was to be able to revel in the kitsch value of things — tacky album covers, religious icons and polyester clothing. My friends and I used to visit Keswick evangelical bookshop on Flinders Street and plunder their Chick tracts — laughing at Jack T Chick‘s hatred for homosexuals, black people, women, Catholics and evolution. We also found the Church of Scientology amusing and after numerous visits pooled our funds and bought their glossy, truly bizarre handbook What is Scientology?.
I wholeheartedly embraced grunge irony and reworked my childhood as a retro pastiche, treasuring my old books and kicking myself that I had sold my BSC books through the Trading Post paper back when they were ‘uncool’.
I also built on my collection of children‘s books by beginning to collect children‘s annuals. While my friends thought I was being hilariously ironic, I actually did have a soft spot for these books. I remember the first annual I received when I was about seven — Princess Gift Book 1968 — I always loved the cover because it never snowed in Melbourne and there was something so British about the sled, the hooded jacket and the girl‘s smile. I treasured its stories and even forced my Mum to make a disgusting green coconut ice recipe. From that moment on, I casually bought or received annuals as gifts. One of Mum‘s friends gave me another couple of Princess books and to this day they are among my very favourites.
The comics and stories offered a similar pleasure to Blyton books — girls solving crimes, often at boarding schools. I had always been fas-cinated with boarding school, regarding it as something of a massive slumber party, with its own rituals and language of ‗tuck‘ and ‗prep‘. I later worked for a year in the British boarding school which apparently provided Blyton with the model for Malory Towers. While no mysteries occurred while I worked there, the various boarding houses seemed just like they had jumped out of the pages of Girls Crystal or Jinty.
As a teenager I seriously began to collect annuals from op-shops, markets and sometimes secondhand bookshops. They were quite cheap and provided much entertainment to my friends and me as we laughed at the etiquette and fashion advice, the outmoded representations of black people and the career options for young women (nurse, teacher and, if you‘re lucky, air hostess). A particular favourite was Fifteen which was a cross between an annual and an etiquette book for young British girls.
I still secretly loved reading the stories, even if I knew they were silly.
My consumption of annuals went beyond simply reading, laughing and collecting. I also used the pictures and sometimes short snippets of text to produce invitations and zines. Girls annuals were always full of party tips and suggestions — how to make the perfect non-alcoholic punch, what tunes to spin, what games to play so that the boys and girls mixed. I mined these sections for my own party invitations and painstakingly photocopied, cut and pasted until I got a suitably ironic design.
I also used images from annuals to make zines. Zines are handmade magazines. Originating from the punk subculture in the 1970s, zines began as fanzines which punk fans would put together through cutting and pasting text and images and photocopying them. Zines have now broadened beyond punk music, but still embrace a punky Do It Yourself aesthetic which my own zines reflect. I completed four zines altogether — The Rayon Underground, Citric Tangent, nitemare hippie girl and, my favourite, Chimpanzine. The latter was almost a ‘concept’ zine. It contained no original text, but was made up entirely of images, mainly from annuals, of primates, the kitschier the better. I think my interest in representations of monkeys and the relation between humans and primates began young, as the monkey ‘Miranda’ was one of my favourite characters in Blyton‘s ‘R’ mysteries, like the Rockingham, Ragamuffin, or Rilloby Fair Mysteries. I collected other people‘s zines for a time as well and was amazed when I went to my first share-house interview and found the people interviewing me were a part of the Foffle zine social cricket club. Our love of zines got us chatting, I moved in and I am still good friends with those people today!
The late 1990s and early 2000s were also characterised by a certain amount of political activism. I was (very) loosely involved in the ISO (International Socialist Organisation) and briefly with the DSP‘s (Democratic Socialist Perspective) youth wing ‘Resistance’. There were actions against upfront fees, Pauline Hanson‘s One Nation Party and Patrick Stevedores. The Hanson protests were particularly led by young people, with my school, MacRobertson Girls‘ High School, allowing most of us to ‘walk out’ in protest against the racist policies of the One Nation Party. Three of my peers even featured on the front page of The Age in Macrob sports uniforms bearing an anti-Hanson banner! Activism reached a climax during the ‘S11’ occupation of the Crown Casino precinct during the meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2000. S11 was one of many global protests against transnational capitalism. Other protests were held in Seattle and Genoa. The occupation took place over three amazing days and involved a wide range of activist organisations. All the socialist factions banded together, and were joined by unionists, anarchists, Queer activists, feminists, animal libbers and a diverse bunch of street theatre practitioners, ‘doof’ DJs and musicians.* The energy at S11 was truly electric — there really was a feeling that ‘something was gaining ground’ — there were just so many people there, all united for a ‘better deal’. This is reflected in the political pamphlets I collected at the occupation which were full of hope that S11 would spawn global revolution!
Unfortunately a lot of the momentum behind this activism was curtailed the next year when the Twin Towers were attacked by Al Qaeda. The late nineties and 2000s also heralded an ironic post-modernist take on radical politics. The postmodern mode of appropriation of images and subsequent ’emptying’ of these images‘ meanings is evident in the proliferation of Che Guevara merchandise. Here we see Che‘s visage gracing a night of techno-hedonism at the Electric nightclub, and a pack of tissues.
Once I began at university, lack of funds severely curtailed my collecting. However, I still managed to pick up annuals at op-shops sometimes, though their recent revival had lead to a bit of a price hike. However, at this time I got to experience collecting from another side, by beginning work at Nick Dawes‘ shop Grants in Prahran. Here, my own buying was limited to academic titles, but I loved to help the customers build on their collections. For almost five years I catalogued, served and packed books at Grants. Highlights were the production of two ‘collectors catalogues’: one of modern fiction and another, a generalist Christmas catalogue. This job gave me an insight into the world of ‘serious’ book collecting and a perspective on the always interesting ‘book collector’ identity. Since beginning my PhD I have also worked for Nick at Australian Book Auctions where I worked on catalogues for the Berry Postcard Sale, as well as the second ‘proper’ Berry Auction. In this role I was able to look at the processes through which an item, be it a book, a postcard, or in the case of the Berry sales, almost anything made of paper, goes from being an everyday useful item to something much more valuable.
In closing I wish to emphasise this idea of shifting values in relation to books. The books I have discussed are not necessarily valuable in exchange terms. Yet, they are valuable to me in that I associate all of them with memories. I am sure it is true for all of your own collections too; that there are certain items with more sentimental, than monetary, value. But for me, it is more than that. I treasure these stories because of what they mean and what they represent culturally: the multicultural melange of the BSC, the quaint homeliness of the Blyton books and the strict gender roles of the annuals. However, in a contemporary context, all of these types of books are becoming more valuable, and even ‘cool’. The recent Dangerous Books for Girls and Boys cobble together articles from annuals, like a slicker, and more expensive, zine, albeit, I think, without much punch. And even a recent edition of trendy fashion magazine frankie featured an artist with an annual pasted on her wall and an article about the BSC and the series author, Ann M Martin.
So who knows — all those books that I have never really spent ‘big’ money on might actually be worth something?
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Monash University Rare Book Librarian and BCSA Victorian Secretary Richard Overell at his ‘Lewd and Scandalous Books exhibition’ (see ad in Biblionews #365-366, p. 57) (Photo: Brian Taylor)
[* Doof: defined by Macquarie Dictionary as a type of popular dance music characterised by a heavy beat]