Saturday, 10 January 2009

Review – Simon GARFIELD – “The Error World”

Publ: 2008 Faber and Faber
Pensby Library
ISBN: 978-0-571-23526-1
Genre: Non-fiction; autobiography; philately; collecting;
Pages: 247p
Found by Serendipity
Rating: ***** *****

What led you to pick up this book?
Saw it by chance in Pensby Library and the title intrigued me. Once I read the first couple of lines I was hooked. “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...”

Describe the plot without giving anything away.

This book is about so much more than collecting postage stamps with errors on them. It gives the history and geography of philately and stamp collectors from schoolboys to Kings and investors. He interviews dealers and a host of other folk in his investigations into what makes men go berserk collecting. I have used the masculine gender purposely. Collecting in general is primarily a ‘man and boy’ thing as the book shows. Enough – but not too much – of an autobiographical flavour makes the book a personal experience without being all ‘me, me, me’. Collecting generally is as much a part of this book as stamps – everything from Pele’s World Cup shirt to classic cars make an appearance.

What did you think about the style?
A really un-put-down-able read with each section and chapter cleverly leading onto the next while roving all over the place.

What did you like most about the book?
My ability to identify with Garfield, the [people he meets and the whole collecting issue. I suspect that many men (and a good few women) who read this will identify with some aspects of it whilst women and men who don’t have any collecting bug will learn a bit more about what makes their partners and friends tick.

Was there anything you didn't like about the book?
Absolutely no! It’s my first ten out of ten book of the year.

Thoughts on the book jacket / cover.
Appropriate and it was fun searching out the errors on the stamps.

Would I recommend it?

Totally irrelevant side note:
It made me want to go and get uncle Eric's stamp collection out and drool. And there’s even space in the book for a woman afraid of the Post Office Tower!


Accordingly, stamps with errors will always be more sought after, and dramatically more expensive, than stamps that are perfect. This feature alone makes stamp collecting \n exceptional and perverse hobby. No one wants a Picasso with missing bistre. A misshapen Ming vase? A 1930’s Mercedes without headlights?

I don’t think I mentioned the Post Office Tower error to my father in 1968. It cost several pounds. Several pounds for a stamp. You could send an elephant first class for that.

It was at this point that I came to terms with one of the great universal collecting truths: no matter what you had in your collection, it wasn’t enough.

Finn Family Moomintroll ....he had completed his stamp collection... ‘I think I’m beginning to understand... You aren’t a collector any more, only an owner, and that isn’t nearly so much fun.’

He explained that when he was growing up in the 1950s every village had a little stamp shop, and everybody collected. ‘Everybody,’ he told me again, as he knew it would be impossible to believe.

Stamp collecting as we understand it probably began in the school classroom, practised by schoolboys and encouraged by teachers of history and geography.

Most collectors do not just collect one thing. The core collection, whatever, it is, is usually the symptom of a far more chronic malaise.

The buyer (of Pele’s shirt) said he wanted to remain anonymous – the buyer could have been a she, but not really...

I read about a man called Ken Tye who collected light bulbs. Tye was writing a history of early incandescent light.... Tye wore quite large smoked glasses and had a round balding head, and he looked like he was turning into a light bulb himself, the way owners come to resemble their pets. I’d like to think it was a common trait... collectors of antiquarian books appearing dank and troubled by their spines.

The most surprising thing about the adverts for SmartStamp was the small print.... “SmartStamp, the Royal Mail, the Cruciform and he colour red are registered trade marks of Royal Mail Group plc.” It owned the colour red; no wonder its monopoly was taken away.

(born 1960, London) is a British journalist and non-fiction author. He was educated at the independent University College School in Hampstead, London, and the London School of Economics. He is the author of, inter alia, The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), The Wrestling, The Nation’s Favourite, Mauve and Our Hidden Lives.


  1. The book sounds really interesting. I started collecting things when I was about 7. They now explode all over the house - owls, stuffed toys, horses (real girlie things I know). I'm always looking for old stieff bears but they are beyond my budget at the moment unless I am lucky enough to find one at a carboot sale (my dream!). I've also started collecting things to do with the tv series Firefly, but again budget limits me to a few select items once in a while.

    Btw,I love the idea for this blog and I look forward to reading more book reviews. :)

  2. I'm sure you'd enjoy this book Inkpot and it would be interesting to get a female view on it. Now you mention it a couple of the supposedly non-collecting girls I know are Owl enthusiasts. I must blog (elsewhere) my former owl collection. Not many of them left now after a few de-clutters.


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