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Signed books and other collectabilia: What’s the big deal?

An earlier thread drifted into a discussion of signed books. Steve Zara, in his response to my mentioning that I do rather like such things, maybe touched on something more profound than was initially apparent. Hence this new thread.

Steve Zara
I have always found the idea of signing queues and autographs rather odd. What is the signature supposed to mean? It doesn't mean that the author knows you, or that you have suddenly become their friend.

Absolutely, Steve. Nor you theirs. I’m with you thus far.

I'm not sure what that signature is supposed to add to a purchase. It has the flavour of superstition to me, as when commoners would rush to touch the cloak of a king in order that some of his power would rub off.

I disagree. Few people rush to touch an author, or even his cloak. Or at least I’ve never been tempted. I taste not the flavour of superstition, but the piquant tang of Darwinian selection and inter-individual competition.

Having a book signed is not an ephemeral thing: it converts a very ordinary, fungible object – a mass-produced printed book – into a highly non-fungible personal treasure.

On a trivial level, it acts as a memento of a fleeting interaction with a fellow human you respect and admire. There’s little wrong with that.

But the determined collection, or purchase, of such things? I suspect there’s something deeper. I’ll declare a personal interest now: One of my goals in life (amongst hundreds of others - I’m not a total obsessive) is to assemble a complete set of original Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins books, the latter in signed form.

Why? Apart from the obvious, superficial reason of enjoying the authors’ work, once something like this gets into your head it exerts a powerful influence. I suspect that any powerful psychological effect is there for an evolutionary reason, otherwise the trait would not have survived millennia of selection. Hence, even something as arguably prosaic as the collection of books might be a distant echo of our evolutionary past.

So what’s it all about? I also have a deeply unfashionable penchant for fast cars, and spend great swathes of my life unsuccessfully trying hard not to buy them. It’s male competition, all this chasing after prime goods, these peacocks’ tails, lining one’s bower with essentially useless sparkling things.

On an intellectual level one realises it’s pathetic, and I probably risk the ire of many on here, but think deeper: we all spend our lives striving to acquire things - admittedly not always physical goods - sometimes intellectual achievement and recognition, sometimes a reputation for kindness and altruism will suffice, or being a bloody good bricklayer, but it’s all striving and jostling for position just the same. Just as the weeds in my Entangled Bank of a garden fight each other for position. Nature is, permanently, at war. It was whilst exerting my alpha-male dominance over a particularly tenacious example of Rumex obtusifolius that the though first occurred to me.

So if we’re genetically programmed to go out into the environment and bring in the best of what we can find, and a signed book is perceived as ‘better’ than one which is not, we go after it, without conscious consideration. We’re not touching the author’s cloak, we’re simply increasing the inventory of prime goods in our bower.

I’m not suggesting that any of this involves conscious deliberation, only that profoundly-hidden evolutionarily-inspired traits might explain much human activity.

None of this is particularly pleasant to analyse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Perhaps it’s unwise to drill too deeply into the crooked timber of one’s own humanity: you never know what atavistic unpleasantness you might find there.

This theory applies to much of life: Why, Mr Zara, do you want to be a prolific (and respected) contributor to a famous author’s web site? Why bother? And why was said famous author driven to write highly controversial books in the first place, rather than choose a quiet life? I suggest it’s all there in human evolutionary development. The wonder of Darwin is that his theory of evolution explains everything about the organic world. Peer deep enough and there’s an evolutionary explanation to all biological activity. By definition.

I wonder if it feels different from a female perspective – since I’m only a man, I have no idea! Do women tend to collect things as readily as males of the species? I don’t know. I wonder if it’s been researched. What about the ladies on here who ask Prof Dawkins and other ‘famous’ authors to sign their copies of their books? Why do you do it? I dare you to be absolutely honest.

And yes, I know there was no such word as collectabilia. There is now.



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