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Original Essays

My Life as a Collector

by Brendan Short
  1. Dream City
    $3.48 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Dream City

    Brendan Short
    "[A]n impressively mature first effort....Short manages to turn the outwardly dreary, uninteresting Michael into a character who is not only sympathetic but complex and compelling....Highly recommended." Library Journal

    "[A] bevy of eccentric characters and some tense moments should keep readers in the fold." Publishers Weekly

A week ago, on my train ride home, a coworker asked me if I had been one of those kids with his nose always in a book. "Isn't that the deal with writers?" she said.

I certainly know the stereotype. I've read those profiles and seen those interviews in which an acclaimed novelist or poet speaks of gobbling up Shakespeare's tragedies at the age of 13 or spending half his adolescence holed up in the house with nobody but J. R. R. Tolkien for company. Such stories are steroids for my self-doubt, and whenever I encounter one, I worry that most authors' credentials are more legitimate than mine.

With the exception of toddling off on my own as a one-year-old to chew on some antique books belonging to a friend of my mom's (well, former friend, once I was discovered), I didn't devour many books as a child. My literary tastes seldom extended past the occasional Choose Your Own Adventure book, the previous day's box scores, and Peanuts comic strips. I was as introverted and geeky as any avid young reader, but instead of forging deep relationships with Miss Havisham or Charlie Bucket, I hung out with Hank Greenberg, Ernie Banks, and Zeke "Banana Nose" Bonura. While my book-loving peers were filling their brains with iambic pentameter and the subtleties of foreshadowing, I was studying the stats and trivia on the backs of old baseball cards and memorizing the values listed in Beckett's Baseball Card Price Guide.

Ask me about The Chronicles of Narnia, and I remember two things: (1) my parents bought the books for me and (2) I never read them. But name a card from the 1938 Goudey or 1961 Topps set, and odds are pretty good I can tell you what it looks like. I can certainly tell you if I own it — even though I haven't bought a card in more than two decades and only look at my collection every year or so.

My life as a collector began in 1975, at age six, with walks to the local White Hen Pantry to buy packs of cards with my best friend Jeff. I followed up that promising rookie campaign with a strong sophomore season that saw me nearly amass a complete 1976 Topps set. I eased up a little in 1977, probably for the simple reason that my cards, though important to me, were in tough competition with the Six Million Dollar Man, Spring Rock Park, and whatever plays and songs and schemes I happened to be concocting at the time with my sister Mary.

In 1978, things changed in terms of my collecting and my family. Mary, on the border of teenage-hood, almost starved herself to death and had to spend several months in the psychiatric wing at Children's Memorial Hospital. Add to this the fact that my other sister, Brigid, had profound mental retardation that left her functioning at the level of a six-month-old, and my home life was heavy with grief and worry. Every Wednesday afternoon, my parents pulled me out of school and drove me downtown to visit Mary and attend tense family therapy sessions. I don't remember much about those sessions except for sitting with my head down, flipping from card to card, wishing I could escape and play or simply be alone in a quiet room with my collection.

Mary came home, but things weren't much better for several years. More of a loner than before, I collected with greater passion (or maybe it was desperation), becoming encyclopedic about my cards' conditions and values, and spending hour after hour organizing and reorganizing them — by year, by team, by position; one way and then another — as I tried to figure out which order made the most sense. Most significantly, I started collecting cards from the 1950s and 1960s, and then the 1930s, buying rubber-banded stacks from a classmate, scoring shoeboxes of cards at thrift stores, and attending sports memorabilia conventions around the Chicago area. For about five years, baseball cards were my calling — and a relief from the feeling that life had fallen apart.

Several years ago, as I started to consider writing a novel, I felt drawn to my former life as a collector. I don't recall much about those years. (When did I become aware of Mary's troubles? What did I do when she fought with my parents?) But I remember the smell and feel of those old wax packs, the way Topps gum would shatter on first bite, and where and for what price I bought some of my best cards. I wrote a few chapters of a novel that would eventually become Dream City, and slowly created Michael Halligan, a character who, in the wake of tragedy, becomes an obsessive collector of Big Little Books: little ten-cent novels of Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, and other comic-strip heroes, which were enormously popular during the Depression.

While doing research for the novel, I read magazine articles that described collectors as compulsive and lonely, and while these qualities applied to me when I collected, and certainly apply to Michael Halligan, I grew annoyed at how rarely the articles talked about the enthusiasm, focus, and creativity of collectors. The act of collecting seemed to me a stab at salvation that, while perhaps trivial, was nobler than any desire for destruction. It also struck me that, in accumulating objects or hobbies or honors or just about anything, we are really trying to save ourselves from our pasts, our presents, our inevitable deaths. Dream City soon became populated with characters trying to save themselves — through religion or ambition, violence or peace, thoughts of great men or heroic stories for boys.

As one year passed to the next, to the next, and Dream City went through various drafts, I sensed that what collectors do is not so different from what novelists do: we study, seek, dream, steadily accumulate, await inspiration and luck, preserve, order, reorder, and persist in thinking that perfection is both possible and near; we strive to bring our own idiosyncratic order to the chaos both inside and around us. I started to think that all those hours seemingly wasted collecting cards had prepared me to become a novelist in a way that reading couldn't have.

I can't quite remember how or when I stopped collecting baseball cards. Most likely, I grew bored with or ashamed of them in high school. As for books, my parents persisted in buying them for me, and though I rarely read them, I treasured them as objects. Then, toward the end of college, I started to open more and more of them and marvel at what writers could do with something as simple as words.

In May of this year, shortly after sending off the final Dream City edits to my editor, I received a birthday gift in the mail: nine Big Little Books that my wife's aunt had bought for me on eBay. As I removed each book from its bubble-wrap cocoon, I felt like the 12-year-old I had been, mesmerized by his latest finds. I know it wouldn't take much for me to become a collector again — of Big Littles, or baseball cards, or just about any bit of 20th-century American pop culture — but the passion (and occasional desperation) I used to have for collecting now flows to my family and my writing. So I simply flipped through my new Big Littles and set them on top of the dresser. Even though I haven't read a single one, I often study them for several seconds as I pick out my clothes in the morning, and I admire them — in part for their weathered charm, but mostly for their survival.

÷ ÷ ÷

Brendan Short holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. His fiction has appeared in several literary journals, including The Literary Review and River Styx, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. From 2000 to 2001 he was writer-in-residence at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois. Dream City is his first novel. spacer

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