THE WALL ST JOURNAL

PURSUITS
Books: A Smithsonian of One's Own 
By Jacques Kelly 
427 words
5 August 2006
(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) 
In Flagrante Collecto 
By Marilynn Gelfman Karp
Abrams, 367 pages, $60

MARILYNN Gelfman Karp seems to wince when forced to throw anything away. And to assuage her conscience she has saved an awful lot of her physical life -- all the way back to childhood Dixie cup lids (showing Ann Miller in MGM's "Hit the Deck") and sets of fancy book matches that her father used to light his pipe.

The result: Ms. Karp has composed a fascinating book -- generously photographed -- about her voracious but discerning habit. With a keen eye (she is an art professor in the Steinhardt School at New York University), she has assembled troves of amethyst-colored glass lightning-rod balls and tin-toy zeppelins and a staggering array of other artifacts. It's not hard to imagine her sifting through the sprawling open-air antique markets at Adamstown, Pa., or Brimfield, Mass., in search of a particularly interesting wire egg-beater or a Dionne Quintuplet souvenir.

Unlike the many sterile and ploddingly thorough collecting price-guides that clutter bookstore shelves, "In Flagrante Collecto" delightfully skips from one arcane category to another, zigzagging from cigar bands to button-polish tins to Jello recipe books. Ms. Karp champions the unselfconscious beauty of everyday things and captures the thrill of the chase in finding them. She never mentions price, and the book is the better for it.

Ms. Karp cites as one of her heroes Jefferson R. Burdick, who in the 1940s and 1950s donated some 306,353 paper ephemera to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Burdick had the most profound conviction," Ms. Karp writes, "that there was something singular" about these quotidian objects.

While Mr. Burdick stashed and cataloged Victorian calling cards, postcards, cigarette papers and such, Ms. Karp saved a handwritten shopping list that she found in a grocery-store cart in 1975. The list "was short and simple," she writes. "Clearasil, M&Ms, chips, baloney, orange soda, and dog food. It told a story, and I became a collector of voyeuristic residuum." In this papery sub-genre she places her collection of motel toilet-seat bands ("Sanitized for Your Protection") and air-sickness bags (Aeroflot's looks like a simple brown-paper bag -- appropriate for losing your lunch).

With such idiosyncratic choices, Ms. Karp banishes any suggestion that this is merely a collector's picture book about those old stand-bys, Depression glass, vintage stamps and antique clocks.