I've had the distinct pleasure of reading Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78prm Records
recently, as well as Kate Leth's short but very good Ink for Beginners: A Comic Guide to Getting Tattooed
. Both of them are very, very good reads, and both of them are organized around two main ideas that, while they seem very dissimilar on the surface, actually end up being a meditation on the same subject in the end.
The first idea has to do with the nature of collecting: why do we do it? What are we trying to prove in the end? Tattooing and record collecting may seem diametrically opposed here: one is external, personal; while the other is internal, and, depending on the collector, only as external as he (because the record collectors that are profiled in the book are almost all men) wants it to be. Petrusich opens her discussion of 78 collectors with one of Baudrillard's famous quotes, that when we collect something, we are ultimately collecting ourselves. It's clear from Petrusich's work that she understands the deep, obsessive call to collect. She understands it so much, in fact, that she learns scuba diving solely so that she can try to find a treasure trove of lost 78s at the bottom of a silty, dangerous river, and despite coming up empty-handed, she still tries to find these lost pieces at flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales. Leth's approach to collecting tattoos is a bit more practical, since she makes the point right away that tats are permanent. If you're not sure about your idea, she advises, "...wait one year. That may seem long, but you'll have it forever. Don't rush it!" Collecting images that mean something to you, or rare shellacs that mean something to American music, is no easy task, and neither author approaches this endeavor as something to be taken lightly.
The second, and more complicated idea, expands on the first and asks: what is permanence? If a tattoo or a record collection immortalizes us somehow, does that make our existence now better, and are the costs necessarily worth it? Leth states flat out that people shouldn't get tattoos when they're young, siting her own mistakes as evidence: "I had my first ink done at age 14. Would I recommend that to anyone? Hell NO.... I had no concept of permanence--I was going to like what I liked at 14 forever." Petrusich, on the other hand, has a longer space to discuss the notion of permanence and collecting, and she does just that. Some of the collectors she profiles are winners of Grammy awards for their contributions to American music history (they collected pieces of musical history that would have otherwise been erased or lost forever), but some of them are obsessive weirdos who collect indiscriminately and leave their mess for others to find after death. Add to this mix that 78s aren't built to last and there's only a finite number of them in the world today, and getting into collecting these items is not something a layperson can do on a whim. Petrusich makes no bones about the fact that the collectors she meets are almost all male, and that the collecting world they inhabit is an uber-masculine one: "... if mismanaged, the urge [to collect] can manifest as a kind of mania, a macho possessiveness." This macho urge to OWN ALL THE THINGS makes for an odd life. For Petrusich, it's an amazing experience, tracking down awesome, funny characters who take her to backwoods rummage sales and recording studios in other places, but for some of her subjects, the cost of permanence isn't even a footnote in history, just a hobby to pass the time. Immortality is sweet for those are careful, decisive, but for many people, it's a vague promise that disintegrates over time.
Both of these books taught me something. Leth's work is relentlessly practical and helped me finally nail what kind of tattoo I want and where I want it. I also realized that I only really want the one, as long as I can find an artist to work with whose work I love. Petrusich's book taught me so much about the early blues scene in America that I hadn't previously been exposed to, and I suspect a lot of the followup to this work will be hunting down as many of the songs that she mentions so that I can hear them for myself. But it also made me evaluate my own small collection of stuff: a few My Little Ponies (Nightmare Moon is just too damn cool, OK?), some Funko Pops, and my Doctor Who/Ponies crossover project. It definitely appears that I've been collecting parts of myself, but their permanence is a little suspect now. They make me happy, though, and in the end, that's the best part of collecting anything, at least for me. I find it ironic that my obsessive, masochistic completist streak is limited to series of books, but not to objects. After Petrusich's work, I think I kind of dodged a bullet there.