Mark Twain said: “There’s some human instinct which makes a man treasure what he is not to make any use of, because everybody does not possess it.” The authors who have written about their collections in this summer special issue are partly driven by a desire for exclusivity: as a child, Howard Jacobson’s box files full of historic buildings leaflets were rendered worthless when he discovered his friend had a complete set. Yet there is perhaps something deeper at play. Lucy Hughes-Hallett describes how her daughter assembled “portable caches” of trinkets as though “she was trying to comprehend the bewildering big world in which she lived by plucking a few things from it and making them her talismans”. That seems true of adults, too. From Tom Holland’s Anglo-Saxon coins to Audrey Niffenegger’s taxidermied animals, our collections are not to be dismissed as mere clutter. On the contrary, in this often bewildering and chaotic world, they can lend our lives meaning, purpose and order. Fossils, postcards and commemorative teacups: these are the fragments that we shore against our ruins.
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special