The Error World by Simon Garfield book cover
The Error World: An Affair with Stamps (2008) by Simon Garfield is a philatelic autobiography – a life through stamps. Of all the pursuits a middle-aged man might delve into, stamp collecting is one of the safest, one might suppose. Not so for Simon Garfield, who, following infidelities (both philatelic and sexual) is at the end of his marriage. Looking back over his life so far, he sees how his stamp collecting (as a young boy and later as a middle-aged man) has been an intrinsic part of dealing with the death of his father, and shaping the end of Garfield’s marriage. His particular penchant is for error stamps – those with small imperfections brought about by an error in the printing process. As he himself identifies, the appeal of these flawed stamps, which have something missing, is undoubtedly a reflection of his own psychology.

Garfield is by no means a ‘high-roller’ in the stamp game, but nor is he a lightweight, spending significant sums of money on his collection. This is a luxury that many collectors cannot afford and at times the author presses home the economic value of his collection more than its emotional value, which would, arguably, resonate more clearly with most collectors. Nevertheless, many are collectors at heart, and as Garfield describes other collectors he’s met, those that collect shopping lists, or LSD blotter paper, many readers will feel that comforting familiarity in the actions of those he describes. Collecting, at its best, is rarely rational but always driven by a fascination and connection with the objects one collects.

There are some nice reminiscences about life as a young boy, but nice though these are, they represent a fairly typical upbringing for one of Garfield’s background / generation. There are also some ad hoc interviews and short biographies of key players in the history of stamps, major collectors or those on the other side of the press. As the book progresses, one feels as jaded as the author with the stamp dealers who happily profit from the hobby of others. Little of the joy of collecting comes out in general, and this is a pity, as no matter where a collection takes the collector, it must surely start with an appreciation of the objects collected. Perhaps this is a neat metaphor for life, Garfield trying to recapture the innocent pleasure he took in his haphazard collection as a child, which when revisited late in life soured and became a joyless obsession. As with any mid-life crisis, youth once passed can never be recaptured. The pity is in attempting to do so.

Garfield’s writing is easy enough to read – there are a few too many conversations of similar tone recited, occasionally a little too much detail about a particular stamp, but generally the author does a good job of presenting what might be a fairly dry topic to those outside the philatelic world, as an enjoyable and gentle read. The book gets by without any images of the stamps so carefully described, and this is perhaps a shame as such an inclusion would doubtless have enhanced the reading experience for the philatelically uninitiated.

One suspects the readership of this book will be fairly narrow and sympathetic to a lot of the author’s perspective. Were it not, the author’s mid-life crisis might be viewed with a little more disdain, the bare facts hardly enamouring the reader to the author. Another gripe is the fairly frequent references to the younger generation (a similar if weaker accusation is aimed at women too), who, Garfield suggests, aren’t interested in stamps or collecting in general. This seems wrong somehow, at least for the collecting part. It seems part of human nature for a lot of people, and as Garfield himself describes (where his point becomes a little muddled), there are endless possibilities for the subject of a collection. Garfield also seems slightly sneering of people who collect things in which he can’t see any value, again, a slightly too-bitter view on collecting.

There aren’t a lot of accessible books about stamp collecting to be found in high street bookshops, so from that point of view this is a refreshing insight into the philatelic world. Garfield’s life is not extraordinary – there is an argument to say this story could have been as well told in an extended article – but The Error World amounts to an interesting look at collecting, its pleasures and pitfalls.

A comfy read and a reminder of how much warm pleasure you can derive from collecting. 

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