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The Error World: An Affair with Stamps

The Error World: An Affair with Stamps

by Simon Garfield

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From the author of Mauve, an obsessively readable memoir that brings the mania for stamp collecting to life From the Penny Red to the Blue Mauritius, generations of collectors have been drawn to the mystique of rare stamps.
Once a widespread pastime of schoolboys, philately has increasingly become the province of older men obsessed with the shrewd investment, the


From the author of Mauve, an obsessively readable memoir that brings the mania for stamp collecting to life From the Penny Red to the Blue Mauritius, generations of collectors have been drawn to the mystique of rare stamps.
Once a widespread pastime of schoolboys, philately has increasingly become the province of older men obsessed with the shrewd investment, the once-in-a-lifetime find, the one elusive beauty that will complete a collection and satisfy an unquenchable thirst.
As a boy, Simon Garfield collected errors—rare pigment misprints that create ghostly absences in certain stamps.
When this passion reignited in his mid-forties, it consumed him. In the span of a couple of years he amassed a collection of errors worth upwards of forty thousand pounds, pursuing not only this secret passion, but a romantic one as his marriage disintegrated.
In this unique memoir, Simon Garfield twines the story of his philatelic obsession with an honest and engrossing exploration of the rarities and absences that both limit and define us.The end result is a thoughtful, funny, and enticing meditation on the impulse to possess.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

"I have built up a stamp collection I can barely afford," Garfield confesses, "and it has brought me to the brink of ruin." Yet despite a significant amount of autobiographical candor, his story doesn't quite deliver the emotional wallop promised in those opening lines. His youthful enthusiasm for stamp collecting, as well as the rediscovery of that passion in his mid-40s, when he has the income to buy the stamps he always dreamed about owning as a boy, are richly detailed. The few passages depicting the personal consequences of that pursuit, however, are too detached. Several digressions into the history of stamps and stamp collecting slow the narrative, which picks up energy only when Garfield returns to his most intimate interest-his focus on collecting only rare stamps that contain printing errors, for example, or tracking down the young girl who won a design competition he entered as a young boy decades ago. Garfield hits upon some interesting psychological questions about the nature of collecting all sorts of material objects, but it often feels like he is writing around the heart of his story. (Jan. 20)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Garfield (Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World) wittily recounts his boyhood obsession with stamp collecting. Like other collectors, he took it into adulthood and sought out the most valuable specimens. Later, he abandoned his passion, moving on to a more mature, collection-free phase of his life. A delight for philatelists everywhere.
—Lynne Maxwell

Kirkus Reviews
Observer feature writer Garfield (Private Battles, 2006, etc.) examines his passion for stamp collecting. The veteran British author begins in late 2006, when he was on "the brink of ruin." He was in debt; his marriage had collapsed; he was involved in an affair with a woman from his past. And philately was the proximate-though not, he reveals later, the ultimate-cause of all this. As Garfield slowly unspools the story of his rise and fall, he detours frequently to zoom in on areas of stamp collecting's increasingly unfamiliar map. (Today's young people don't seem interested in the hobby, he notes.) He sketches the history of the postage stamp, interviews a former U.K. Postmaster General, visits stamp dealers and authorities, attends auctions, glances at how various writers (e.g., Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich) have used philately in their fiction, notes that celebrities like John Lennon have been collectors and examines stamps-never-issued in the Royal Mail Archive. Garfield began collecting as a boy, he says, then gave it up as an adolescent and young man, but returned to it, with renewed vigor, in his 40s. He made substantial purchases (concealed from his wife) and became obsessed with "error stamps," those with printing or production mistakes that elevated their value, sometimes enormously. He eventually credits Freud for helping him understand that his collecting was a form of compensation for the untimely losses of his father to a heart attack, his mother to cancer and his brother to viral pneumonia. Garfield depicts his marital infidelity in the same, vaguely self-serving light-and, of course, the flaws on his beloved stamps are analogous to those in his character. He eventually soldhis most valuable stamps and paid some debts. The author's enthusiasm does not prove contagious. Agent: Pat Kavanagh/PFD
From the Publisher

"Garfield has surpassed himself with his new subject matter: Mauve elegantly relates the tale of Victorian chemist William Perkin who, in 1856, failed to make quinine from coal tar but discovered instead how to synthesize the colour purple. Fascinating stuff."—Esquire

"This engaging and airy history shows how the development of mauve, the first mass-produced artificial dye, ignited a 19th-century revolution . . . Garfield has inspired me to wear a bit of mauve this spring to honour this inventive man."—The New York Times

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt


The Perfect Stamp

Little do wives know how much men spend on their hobbies. But my wife is about to find out.

It is almost one o’clock on 22 November 2006, a Wednesday. I’m standing just inside the door of my marriage guidance counsellor’s house in north London. I have a stamp album under my arm and I am in all kinds of trouble – emotional, financial, philatelic – a situation I couldn’t have imagined two years before.

My marriage is over, but the reasons are still unravelling.

We have drifted apart over the years. I have fallen in love and I’m having an affair. I have developed a passion for someone I loved when I was young, and for something I loved when I was a child. I am forty-seven, and I can’t concentrate on anything for very long.

I have built up a stamp collection I can barely afford, and it has brought me to the brink of ruin. The affair and my stamps, the two secrets that have brought me here to a small room in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, are not unconnected, for both are quests for meaning, the classic mid-life dilemma. For my marriage guidance counsellor the affair is a commonplace: a lack of intimacy and honesty with my wife, a beautiful woman who has rejuvenated my days and made me feel attractive, hotel rooms. But the stamps are something unusual.

Collecting fills a hole in a life, and gives it a semblance of meaning. When men get together to talk about their passions, we don’t just talk about what we love – our cars, our sports, our romantic yearnings – but also how much these desires have cost us, and what we have lost. We try to regain what we cannot. We talk about the one that got away – the prized possession – as if that would have made everything right.

Little do wives know: I first heard this phrase from Michael Sefi, the keeper of the Queen’s stamps. Then there were similar observations from the head of an auction house and my stamp dealer. They often spun a web of secrets for their clients, something they called discretion. My philatelic icon, a man who had the heroic name Sir Gawaine Baillie, had built up a collection worth more than ten million pounds, but his wife thought it was worth £800,000.

In the past I have wondered whether my affair was a sort of hobby too, a diversion from reality, a club of extreme enthusiasm. We loved talking about our love, and would sometimes talk of nothing else, shutting out the world with our own code. We knew it wasn’t harmless, and that devastating and far-reaching things would surely follow, but we considered ourselves above life itself.

I found it easier to talk about my affair than my stamps. I was actually proud of it, even in front of my wife. In my mid-forties I could still ignite passion in myself and in another; better, it was a passion I had never felt before. And anyone could understand these emotions, the stuff of books and films, and of a million lucky lives. But stamps? Used postage? Who could be passionate about that? And who could explain it?

I told my wife of my affair in a straightforward way, on a walk along the Kent coast one afternoon, and things moved swiftly from there. Within a week I was sleeping in my office, within a month in a rented flat. There is a practical way these things advance, a clinical order to offset the hurt and anger and tears. There is professional help to call upon. But an affair with stamps – stamps as a mistress, just as uncontrollable as the wildest edge of obsessive love – that might take half a lifetime to understand.

My wife still doesn’t appreciate my stamps, but my marriage guidance counsellor, who I shall call Jenny, is making a good attempt. After our session this lunchtime I have an appointment at an auction house, not to buy but to sell, a meeting that will place a monetary value on my private hobby, which in turn will affect my immediate future and the level of extended mortgages and maintenance payments. Rather than leave my stamps in my car I have brought them in, and I am opening the cover for Jenny to examine.

She is bored out of her mind in less than thirty seconds. She doesn’t even feign interest. I say, ‘Look at this one, it lacks olive-green!’ She says, ‘I know they mean a lot to you.’

I don’t collect ordinary stamps. I collect stamps with errors, with absent colours, with printing faults. It doesn’t take long for my marriage guidance counsellor to make the connection between what I collect – stamps with bits missing – and my family history, which has been a life with people missing. I mention to her that Freud considered collecting as ‘compensation for loss’, and she nods. She doesn’t understand the beauty of the stamps in my album, but she can see that selling them is a great loss, another imminent separation.


First U.S. edition

© Simon Garfield, 2008

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Meet the Author

SIMON GARFIELD is a feature writer at the Observer (London) and the author of nine works of nonfiction, including Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, which was a New York Times Notable Book, and The End of Innocence, which won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1995.

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