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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

To Have and to Hold

Philipp Blom

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To purchase To Have and to Hold

Title: To Have and to Hold
Author: Philipp Blom
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 236 pages
Availability: To Have and to Hold - US
To Have and to Hold - UK
To Have and to Hold - Canada
Sammelwunder, Sammelwahn - Deutschland
  • An intimate history of collectors and collecting
  • With 53 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : diverting, but often fascinating details don't add up to a convincing whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 3/8/2002 Tom Phillips
The Independent . 3/8/2002 Geoff Nicholson
J. of the History of Collections . 5/2003 Jas' Elsner
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 20/1/2004 Susanne Ostwald
New Scientist . 7/9/2002 Maggie McDonald
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/4/2003 Elizabeth Hanson
The Spectator . 24/8/2002 David Hughes
Sunday Telegraph . 28/7/2002 Christopher Tayler
TLS . 26/7/2002 Jenny Uglow
The Washington Post . 23/2/2003 Jonathan Yardley
Die Zeit . 11/12/2003 Wilhelm Trapp

  Review Consensus:

  Found it enjoyable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Freud himself is collected in Phillip Blom's diverting anthology of exemplary figures in the history of chronic acquisitiveness. (...) Blom's text delights in extremists and obsessives (.....) In the manner of one addressing the Peckham Lodge of Acquirers Anonymous, I have to confess that I read Blom's largely anecdotal survey with the morbid fascination that a hypochondriac brings to a medical handbook." - Tom Phillips, The Guardian

  • "However, this material is pure gold for a writer. There is a grand narrative about knowledge, order and classification. Then there is a more local narrative full of amazing anecdotes and curiosities.(...) Blom is not content to tell stories. He's keen to draw some grand conclusions, and these are sound but not startling." - Geoff Nicholson, The Independent

  • "Der Historiker und Philosoph Blom, geboren 1970, beweist mit seinem klugen und humorvollen Buch nicht nur eine umfassende Gelehrtheit, sondern auch einen Sinn für das Abseitige und Schrullige, der seinem Gegenstand bestens gerecht wird." - Susanne Ostwald, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Blom's scholarly approach bares both the strangeness and the beauty in the amassing of objects." - Maggie McDonald, New Scientist

  • "(A) densely written, wry history (.....) Blom's formidable research is an example of the collector's art in itself." - Elizabeth Hanson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "So the book sketches the origins of museums, or systems of classification, by enthusiasts as disparate as Linnaeus and Sir John Soane. It is also a picture of Philipp Blom’s mind, one solemn enough to let the darker humour of his material speak for itself. (...) He is an accurate reporter who interprets well. He makes you rethink yourself in civilised style, if not comfortably unsettle your view of the world." - David Hughes, The Spectator

  • "To Have and to Hold is an impressively wide-ranging book, drawing on sources in German, French, Latin, Dutch and Italian as well as English. Blom prefers to suggest things by juxtaposition rather than to make systematic arguments, however, and some of his digressions stray pretty far from his ostensible remit. His writing can also be stilted, and his excursions into intellectual history don't always persuade. His best pages are weirdly poetic, though, and for interested parties it's still worth slogging through the rest to uncover such gems as his sketch of Henry Clay Frick" - Christopher Tayler, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Blom is a novelist and an able raconteur. By the time he reaches the end of the seventeenth century, his tone has become chilling. (...) But Blom's rapid lists, diverting asides and quick contextualizing summaries sometimes hinder our understanding of the sensual power of collections, even the strange and terrible beauty of Ruysch's works. (...) These are cavils. To Have and To Hold is, in the main, highly informative and pleasurable, mapping the great shifts in theories of knowledge, while relishing the dramas, oddities and moments of high comedy." - Jenny Uglow, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Philipp Blom correctly argues, in this interesting and provocative book, that traditionally collecting has been a luxury enjoyed by the rich and privileged" - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       To Have and to Hold is about collectors and collections, presented (predictably) largely as a cabinet of curiosities, as Blom devotes chapter after chapter to different collectors and/or collections.
       Collectors are generally odd folk -- obsessive, almost always fairly well-off (it's hard to indulge in serious collecting without great wealth), masters of specific (often very odd) domains -- and so they make good subjects for a book. Collections also are often remarkable, for their size (small collections aren't of much interest), variety (or striking sameness), and all those unusual and unique pieces that stand out. Again: good book-material, one would imagine.
       Blom does assemble a fine amount of material in his book. Much of the book is an historical survey, as Blom hops from one collector/collection to the next in his fairly short chapters. And many of the many titbits are fascinating, from Peter the Great's tooth collection (extracted by the amateur dentist emperor himself: "Many unsuspecting passers-by had to relinquish molars before their ruler's lust for surgery was satisfied" -- yikes !) to why the Ashmolean Museum should be known as the Tradescantian Museum.
       Some of the collections are of scientific interest and value, some far more dubious (including anatomical parts ranging from Napoleon's privates to entire human beings, skinned and then stuffed). Particularly amusing: the trade in sacred relics, such as bits of the cross Jesus was crucified on.
       Blom also considers modern collections, often of kitsch or the commonplace -- including such things as milk bottles. And the very popular bibliomania also isn't ignored.
       Beside the collectors themselves, there are also amusing figures who prey on them, including art dealer Joseph Duveen, who knew exactly how get his clients interested.
       There is a bit of theorizing too. Blom finds, for example, that collecting is an attempt at warding off death -- making the fate of so many collections (dispersed, ruined, ravaged, or often simply lost) all the more poignant. Or, he suggests:

Collected objects lose their utilitarian value (there are exceptions, of course) and gain another one, are imbued with meaning and qualities of representation beyond their original station.
       The book is also densely illustrated, with many interesting pictures -- though unfortunately the diminutive black-and-white pictures often don't do justice to what is being presented. (In addition, there are no picture-captions (only a list of illustrations at the front of the book), which leads to some confusion.)

       To Have and to Hold is filled with interesting material -- and one has to admire chapter-headings such as "Why boiling people is wrong" -- , but, like many collections, there's a haphazard quality to it. The whole remains somewhat shapeless. In addition, much of this material is familiar -- from Rudolf II to J.P.Morgan to many others -- and Blom's summary introductions don't add much to what is known. (Readers entirely unfamiliar with the stories of all these collectors will likely feel differently.) Some of the bits -- about "the benefactor to end all benefactors, Alberto Vilar", for example -- seem like journalistic left-overs forcibly stuffed into the book. (The Vilar pages stand out in particular as they are already dated, Mr. Vilar apparently suffering from financial setbacks that have recently left him in a distinctly less benefactorial mood.)
       By far the best parts of the books are the personal reminscences and information about great-grandfather Willem Eldert Blom. Would that Philipp had devoted his book to him instead !
       Blom presents his material fairly well -- though again his strength is with the bits rather than the whole (i.e. he does not connect all his material particularly well). The stories and titbits are often gripping and often very amusing. But in the end one still asks -- as with many collections -- what's the point ?

       (Note: for such a well-read, clever author, who even translates the Bruno Schulz epigraph he uses himself, one would have imagined he would have noticed the misspelling of Vienna's Ringstraße (the "e" somehow got dropped).)

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To Have and to Hold: Reviews: Other books by Philipp Blom under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Philipp Blom was born in Hamburg in 1970. He has lived in Austria and England, and writes for Swiss, English, and German periodicals.

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