Friday, 20 August 2010

Key's Cupboard - Ayn Rand: Why She Liked Stamp Collecting

By Frank Key

She has been dead for nearly thirty years, but there's no stopping Ayn Rand. Both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged still sell in vast quantities in the United States, appealing as they always will to a certain stripe of libertarian individualist. (I hesitate to use the term "right wing", as I suspect that defining politics by a left / right divide is getting less and less useful.)

Should you decide to devote yourself to the philosophical system Rand dubbed "Objectivism", you will need a hobby, and clearly you ought to pursue the pastime recommended by the woman who started life in Russia as Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum. And no, I am not referring to chain smoking, of which she was a lifelong devotee. In a 1971 essay with the endearingly artless title Why I Like Stamp Collecting, Rand explains:

I started collecting stamps when I was ten years old, but had to give it up by the time I was twelve. In all the years since, I never thought of resuming the hobby. It left only one after-effect: I was unable to throw away an interesting-looking stamp. So, I kept saving odd stamps, all these years. I put them into random envelopes and never looked at them again.

Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, I met a bright little girl named Tammy, who asked me - somewhat timidly, but very resolutely - whether I received letters from foreign countries and, if I did, would I give her the stamps. I promised to send her my duplicates. She was eleven years old, and so intensely serious about her collection that she reminded me of myself at that age.

Once I started sorting out the stamps I had accumulated, I was hooked.

It was an astonishing experience to find my enthusiasm returning after more than fifty years, as if there had been no interruption. Only now the feeling had the eagerness of childhood combined with the full awareness, confidence and freedom of age.

My first step was to acquire a Minkus Master Global Stamp Album. In a year and a half, it has grown to four volumes, plus four special albums - and my collection is still growing, at an accelerating rate. No, I have not forgotten Tammy: I send her piles of duplicates every few months, and I feel very grateful to her.

In all those years, I had never found a remedy for mental fatigue. Now, if I feel tired after a whole day of writing, I spend an hour with my stamp albums and it makes me able to resume writing for the rest of the evening. A stamp album is a miraculous brain-restorer...

Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people - because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, intensely private world.

A career requires the ability to sustain a purpose over a long period of time, through many separate steps, choices, decisions, adding up to a steady progression toward a goal. Purposeful people cannot rest by doing nothing nor can they feel at home in the role of passive spectators. They seldom find pleasure in single occasions, such as a party or a show or even a vacation, a pleasure that ends right then and there, with no further consequences.

The minds of such people require continuity, integration, a sense of moving forward...

But - it is asked - why not collect cigar bands, or coins, or old porcelain? Why stamps?

Because stamps are the concrete, visible symbols of an enormous abstraction: of the communications net embracing the world.

While the world politicians are doing their best to split the globe apart by means of iron curtains and brute force, the world postal services are demonstrating - in their quiet, unobtrusive way - what is required to bring mankind closer together: a specific purpose cooperatively carried out, serving individual goals and needs. It is the voices of individual men that stamps carry around the globe; it is individual men that need a postal service; kings, dictators and other rulers do not work by mail. In this sense, stamps are the world's ambassadors of good will.

So there you have it. First, get your Minkus Master Global Stamp Album, and you will be on your way with a proper Objectivist hobby. Just one warning: Ayn Rand's stamp collection grew to over fifty thousand stamps, but she would not, and did not, collect a single stamp from a communist country.


  1. This is what happens when you combine stamp collecting with a god complex and an amphetamine addiction

  2. And funnily enough I'd always wanted to know what happens when you combine stamp collecting with a god complex and an amphetamine addiction...

  3. Well I'll be... And this guy collected stamps too - what are the chances?