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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

Has Anyone Got A Spare Coffee Table Going? - A Tale About Collections And Musings On Life

(Image Credit - Rolling Stone)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve started to collect a few odd things – picture discs and intriguing books are two of the main pieces, for instance. There’s just something wonderful about being committed to starting a small collection of specific items and slowly building it out until you find all of what you’re looking for. Or, that’s how it’s meant to be, isn’t it?

Well, once you’ve collected such items, what do you do with them? Enjoy them, some will tell you, but at the end of the day, that notion of enjoyment is something personal. With the items I’ve started to collect, there is an obvious method. With the lovely sect of eye-catching vinyl discs and odd white label and seven inches I’ve picked up from record fairs and some lovely sellers on eBay and Discogs, the obvious thing to do is play them, right? Vinyl is fundamentally a medium of music, and that music needs to be played.

The same goes for the books I’ve managed to pick up. Steve Rothery’s marvellous Postcards From The Road is a gorgeous photographic excursion into the life of Marillion’s longest-serving member that should be left open on a coffee table, whilst artist Mark Wilkinson’s Shadowplay is a book that deserves its own gallery – such is his prowess with an airbrush. Yet, here arises a small problem.

This pair of books alongside Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics and Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book Of Bass for instance are what are known as ‘coffee table books’ or, in other words, books to be laden across your nice front room table when guests visit, and point them out, sat there in a fan formation, for you to use as an intriguing point of conversation. The problem I have is that simply put, I don’t have a coffee table, which leads these to just become ‘-books’. They are stunning to look at every so often and can, in some instances, lead to a knock-on effect of kickstarting more collections – Shadowplay led me down the garden path of collecting Channel Island stamps, oddly enough.

It’s this odd conundrum that seems to characterise the motivations of people, myself included, collecting what is most likely, as we approach 2022, considered as being old-fashioned. People don’t read books anymore – they’ve either all got Kindles or use their phones. Vinyl is old hat now, given the monstrous rise of streaming services and how egalitarian good audio seems to be these days. In other words, the act of collecting something is arguably done to reminisce about the past, or better still, to keep old stuff alive.

Yet, we live in a world where everything is wanted now. Working in the tech press alongside studying a History degree at university certainly provides the best of both worlds. One minute, I’m writing an essay about the Bosnian War, and the next I’m writing rumours about Apple’s much-leaked augmented reality headset, or a pre-order article for the latest iPhone. Society appears to be fascinated by new technology and is always wanting to look forwards, yet to look forwards, we arguably also have to look backwards.

Life is, arguably, based on the notion of force of habit and the point that when looking back, people look for specifics, or as economist Thorstein Veblen put it in an 1898 article, "a habitual line of action constitutes a habitual line of thought, and gives the point of view from which facts and events are apprehended and reduced to a body of knowledge." On a basic level, Veblen discusses the point that people learn through force of habit, and therefore that what people do is based on an "everyday line of action", or the things that are done most days.

So, if someone streams music every day, it becomes part of their life, and the act of picking up one album on physical media to listen to seems odd. Or, if someone buys a new smartphone every year, and then they see someone utilising the same handset they've had for a few years, it seems strange. It could be said that society is perhaps conditioned by itself to think of certain modern events as habit, and therefore it is only right for people to fall in with them for the sake of convenience and forming part of a wider social trend.

The act of collecting old things like stamps or, in my case, vinyl may therefore seem a little anachronistic given how forward-thinking life is, but it is these eccentricities that make life what it is. It allows people to occupy this weird space where they can exhibit all these modern and progressive qualities but at certain points look back to the way things used to be and heed calls from the past in order to make their present and future a little more interesting.

However, the successes of this are perhaps few and far between. We look back to history for interesting lessons to learn, but end up falling into the same habits as our forefathers before us. It is perhaps because of this that the lessons learnt from the past can be soon, as Veblen says. "reduced to a body of knowledge" as a page on a textbook, or the contents of a lecture. Such lessons are institutionalised and wrapped up within wider historical events that you have to sift through in order to become acquainted with and therefore learn a nugget of information from.

On a basic level though, it is these odd dichotomies, be it with my coffee table books and no coffee table to put them on, or the act of looking back to look forward, that drive life forwards. People want to learn about the past, but at the same time, are fascinated by the future. This sense of innovation and constant progression can, of course, only arise by looking back to where we've come from.

If this article teaches you anything, let it be the idea that looking back to the old ways and tradition may not be a bad thing every once in a way or maybe the fact I need to invest in a nice coffee table - I'll let you decide which is the main takeaway point.


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