On Book Collecting (and why I love books so very much)


I have collected books for most of my life. As a 17 year old working in a children’s bookshop and constantly bringing home a new story I fell in love with. As a 21 year old art student scouring the flea markets in London and dragging home moldy books in an old lady shopping trolley and making my tiny room smell of damp. As a 28 year old popping in to the charity shops every day on her way to the Co-op with a baby asleep in a sling. And now at 33 as someone trying to make her own book for the first time.*

* Technically this isn’t quite true as I’m pretty sure I finished my first illustrated book when I was about six – made with copy paper from the recycling box and the much coveted long-armed stapler. And I’ve worked on books for projects with community groups and schools. But this is my first book that will be solely my own work and that will have my name on it.


I grew up in houses full of books, and books were always the thing it was ok to want more of, you just put up more book shelves if you ran out of space. My grandparents were a huge influence in this way as my Grandad actually had a room in their three bed bungalow that he made into his own library, with floor to ceiling, wall to wall bookshelves. (I’m beginning to think hoarding might be a bit of  a genetic trait in my family too). I always loved going to the library and still end up taking out more books then I can ever read (a habit I’m trying to curb due to a recent hefty library fine!). I know this is carrying on in to my life as a parent, because storytime is my favourite part of the day and there is always a big pile of books by the bed. I think books to me are about potential – potential to learn, potential to escape, potential to discover and potential to get lost for a little while in something new. They are also most people’s first experience of owning art, and and art that you can hold, explore and experience again and again. So it seems that I have begun an accidental library of my own.


For the last few years my collecting has been focused on two areas – children’s books (especially pop-up books) and antiquarian natural history books. I also can’t resist Dover Pictorial Archives (think your art teachers’ shelves), any books about the Arts and Crafts Movement, non-fiction books about nature, field guides, and books on folk stories and fairytales. Nothing is worth much, most are from charity shops and probably cost a pound or two, the nicer newer ones are usually presents. I have to be careful as I’m on a pretty limited budget these days, plus I have a dust allergy – but this doesn’t seem to have stopped the collection from filling the shelves in my studio.


Recently, working on my book Tiny Voyages of Discovery for the Sir John Barrow Cottage residency has helped me to really understand for the first time that I don’t collect these simply to inform my art practice, but because my love of books is actually a core part of my work. From the content, titles and illustrations, to the design of the covers, end pages and bookplates, I’m also fascinated by the names people have written in elaborate script in the corners, and the old embossed logos or library stamps. There is also the physicality of books, that they are (mostly) something that can be touched and held – running your fingers over the embossed titles on the cover, turning the pages, even the fact that they have a distinctive smell (sometimes this is of course just damp, but there’s another scent there too of paper and cupboards and dust). There is also something profoundly enjoyable for me about the experience of looking for books – moving along the shelves, scanning their titles and guessing what might be inside, judging it’s content and age by the design. Then, when one catches your eye, picking it up and opening it for the first time, flicking through the pages searching for interesting chapter headings or beautiful illustrations. Finding a special book and getting to take it home with me is one of my favourite things in the world.

So I have decided to start a little series up here on my abandoned blog, featuring some of my favourites. I’m really excited about looking again at books that have been stuck on the shelves for too long, and sharing some beautiful designs with you.


Eleanor ChaneyComment