Before I start this post, there ate two things you should know. The first is that I am not a book blogger or book reviewer. I like books but I rarely read reviews. I pick them off the shelf at the library (or occasionally the bookstore discount table) because the title or the author or (gasp) the cover looks good to me. I read the blurb and if it feels good, I take it home and start on it. I like talking about books, but rarely feel compelled to write about them. My blog is not really about books anyway.
The second thing that you need to know about me and books is that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. It is pretty hard for the real world to compete with the fictional ones. Okay, a grisly murder or an incredible scam probably competes, but rarely can the real world assemble a cast of characters that a good piece of fiction can.
I rarely do book blogs/reviews, but in this case I will make an exception–because I enjoyed the book so much.
The Once-cent Magenta (subtitled Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World) by James Barron is a great tale of how this stamp came to be, who has owned it and how it was sold throughout its history. You wouldn’t think the history of a postage stamp, printed only because the real stamps had been lost at sea, would be an interesting story, but it is. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a Dan Brown page turning thriller, but since the stamp carries such a high price tag, no doubt some interesting people have been interested in owning it. This is the only British stamp not to be part of the Royal stamp collection–since there’s only one of them and it is owned by an American.
I am not a stamp collector, but every time I read a book about stamp collecting, I become interested in it again. This happens when I read the Keller novels of Lawrence Block, which feature the stamp collecting hit-man Keller, and they happened after I read this book.
My coworkers were in disbelief when I told them this book was good. I guess it comes down to the writer James Barron. He is witty without being condescending, which seems harder and harder to do in this era. The jokes don’t come at the expense of the people in this book but rather the whole situation. I admire that about his writing above all else. He is a New York Times reporter, so I am sure he knows a good story when he sees one. He also knows that the story is the centerpiece, not his ego.
What is it about collecting something rare? What is it that makes people want it so bad? In the book, he wrestles with that question. I can’t say you will find an answer, but you will have at least gotten a better look at it than most people.
This book has stirred up an interest in stamp collecting in me. If it lasts, I guess I will be starting a new hobby. Please check out these two posts from my other blog to see what I mean. Hobby Inspiration. Inadvertent Collection.