To those who read Simon Garfield’s essay in the Fall 2005 issue of Granta, The Error World: An Affair with Stamps is a long-awaited continuation of the author’s musings on the whys and wherefores of stamp collecting, and collecting in general. Although it lacks the color illustrations that lent the Granta essay part of its charm, Error World does not disappoint, delivering a thoughtful memoir that reaches beyond the author’s own experiences to delve deeper into the meaning of our love for inanimate objects.
The “error world” of Garfield’s title refers to the stamps he and other collectors covet. While errors to a sheet of stamps can happen in any number of ways: too much ink, not enough, missing or misplaced perforations, miscut sheets — Garfield reserves particular admiration for several mid-century stamps with one missing plate of ink, resulting in seemingly meaningful absences.
The qualities of the actual stamps themselves — Garfield speaks of their “still beauty and clarity”, calling one “the most beautiful small object I had ever seen” — are only one reason these small pieces of gummed paper are so desirable, Garfield explains. As he intersperses stories of other collectors and collections with the subsequent deaths of his father, brother and mother, Garfield muses on the reasons behind his collection. “Stamps transport me to a time when my father was still alive, and when my life seemed secure … Postage stamps offer one way in which we may order a world of chaos, and they have the power to bring a dependable meaning to life”, he writes.
Of course, a large part of stamps’ allure comes from their value. “Collectors are not being honest if they claim that the cost or worth of their hobby never crosses their mind,” Garfield says, and certainly much of Error World is devoted to cataloging the ever-increasing values of some of the world’s rarest stamps, including many of Garfield’s beloved mid-century errors. Yet at the same time, the Postal Service continues to produce more and more varieties of stamps, making life difficult for collectors desiring complete sets and leading Garfield and others to wonder if stamp collecting might be a dying pastime.
Moving beyond stamps, Garfield looks at collecting in all its strange 21st-century incarnations. He seems to regard bizarre collections (light bulbs, carpet fluff, LSD blotting-paper artwork) as well as kitsch (Beatles wigs, football badges, commemorative plates) with equal amazement and scorn even as he acknowledges his own captivation by all of it. “Collecting anything makes sense to me,” Garfield admits. “Ten years ago I would have scoffed at people who collected luggage tags”; now, he is a card-carrying member of the Ephemera Society (one of its youngest), where his collection of London Underground maps can properly be appreciated. Yet here he is also his most harsh about the act of collecting itself, calling it a “chronic malaise … (that) spreads itself throughout a life like a shattered windscreen”.
At times, Garfield’s narrative seems to wander. A chapter about his Israeli uncle, also a stamp collector, adds little to Garfield’s narrative aside from an amusing anecdote about a wooden leg. Stories of Garfield’s flirtations with other big-ticket purchases — a David Hockney painting, a Jaguar XJ140 — add to his self-portrait as a man who has defined himself at times through the items he possesses, but these tales seem to run a bit long in the tooth.
Throughout the story of his affair with stamps, Garfield bemoans the fact that the people around him fail to see the intoxicating quality of the stamps he so loves. The reader benefits from this pent-up longing to share his heart’s desire, because Garfield’s elucidation of the allure of stamps is crystal-clear. Their connections to history, to far-off places or to national symbols, make them touchstones for knowing one’s place in the world; Garfield writes about the feeling that “runs sideways in my veins, fizzing off the lining” when he examines his Penny Black, which were the first-ever adhesive postage stamps issued in the world.
While Garfield and his fellow collectors may come across as a bit daft, they are also human, and it will be the rare reader who does not recognize something of himself in the author’s desire, expressed through his collections, for “an element of control in a fateful world”.