How Many Teapots Are Too Many? A Review of “Inside the Head of a Collector”

I’m most definitely not a Marie Kondo-type of person. Many—many—things bring me joy, or, often, too much guilt to allow me to discard (kids’ artwork).

But am I a collector?

For most of my life I would’ve said no. I pick up whatever I find particularly appealing and within my means but I’ve rarely sought out anything specific.

But here I am now, seemingly a collector of tea ware. My defense is that my “collection” largely comes from garage sales, thrift stores, or gifts; more importantly, every item will eventually find its way into this blog. Rationalization par excellence!

teapot_lying down
My Persian Ware teapot, made in Germany

There’s endless research on collecting: why we collect, how we collect, who collects, what makes it “collecting” vs “accumulating” vs “hoarding” and so on. Collecting also covers a huge amount of territory—from the lofty aim of owning unique and beautiful objects that bring us continued pleasure, down to a genuine appreciation for inexpensive trinkets picked up on vacations.

To differentiate those who collect from those who merely acquire, some researchers cite the zeal involved:

The passion involved in the process of collecting seems to distinguish what one might call a collector from one simply accumulating things with no special attachment to the acquisition (Lotis and Lee 2011).

So, lacking fervor, I’m not a collector.

Shirley M. Mueller (2019), neurologist as well as scholar of Chinese export porcelain, has a much broader definition:

The reason we collect is simple. It makes us happy.

So, enjoying my teapots, I am a collector.

teappot with cup
My antique teapot with cup

Shirley goes on to say:

In this faraway place, apart from the rest of our lives, we can imagine. This is different than when we are involved in the routine aspects of living; then we can reliably predict much of what will happen. With collecting, we don’t know what to expect. It can take us anywhere. And, we can easily anticipate a whole new world of excitement. (Mueller 2019)

I agree with her on this. Seeking out an item—whether at a high-end auction or the neighborhood garage sale—can lead you to meet new people, see new things, have new experiences. And when I research a teapot or a tea, I often find myself in a warren of discovery! Which is actually how I met Shirley.

Back in 2016, I downloaded one of her papers, sending a note about why I was interested in it. Shirley immediately responded, inviting me to her then-ongoing exhibit, The Luxury of Tea and Coffee, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art! New places, new friends, new experiences.

Shirley Mueller at her 2016 The Luxury of Tea and Coffee exhibit

Meeting her, I learned that the relationship between brain function and the act of collecting has long intrigued Shirley, being both a neurologist and collector herself. At the time, she was considering a book, which she did ultimately write. A book that artfully combines the science of collecting with an example of a collection, in this case, her own early Chinese export porcelain (which includes a lot of tea ware).

Published this past fall by Lucia/Marquand, Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play may sound rather scholarly but the science in this book goes down incredibly smoothly.

Shirley herself has an engaging personality so I love that her lively voice shines through, informing and entertaining the reader simultaneously. Examples in her own life, often humorous and occasionally self-deprecating, vividly illustrate scientific concepts.

The book is visually appealing, lavishly illustrated. Beautiful photos of early Chinese export ware, especially tea ware, abound (most of them taken by Thomas M. Mueller). Teapots are prominent.

book cover

This is a very colorful book, with chapter text broken up by photographs, “Scientific Moment” boxes, color-coded text panels, and even blank pages in saturated colors. Yellow-edged pages mark stand-alone case studies. In addition to all these presentation tactics, there are chapter-opening quotations, deep captions, interesting endnotes.

pg ex 2aIt’s a book that you can open nearly anywhere and read a tidbit or two. In fact, the layout is quite ideal for reading in that way, although perhaps slightly distracting for those who prefer to read a book in a strictly linear fashion.

This just might be the perfect book for those of us whose brains have been forever changed (adversely or not is up to you!) by multitasking and relentless smartphone use—it facilitates our tendency to jump around, scan snippets of text, linger on compelling photos.

This book does not require sustained focus. (Perhaps the slightest bit ironic—or pertinent—considering the book’s focus on brain function.)

Chapters are short; text is relatively brief for a scientifically based book; and supplementary material, especially the case studies, can generally be read on their own. Further, Shirley’s light approach allows the reader to zip through her prose.

All of this makes it easy to learn and absorb a lot of information quite effortlessly. And there is a lot of info packed into this book.

In addition to a brief intro, foreword, epilogue, appendix, and author biography, the book proper is divided into three parts, each containing a related but stand-alone case study:

  1. Pleasure and Pain, which gives examples on the act of collecting (e.g., “The Thrill of the Chase”) and how that can encompass taking risks, being deceived, meeting people, facing breakage and loss (including breaking things yourself!), and understanding the differences between various types of collectors as well as between collector and hoarder.
  2. Enhancing Pleasure Through Understanding Ourselves. Here Shirley focuses on the neurological: why we rush into purchases, make bad decisions, freeze with too many choices, buy at an auction not to win but rather to not lose!
  3. Collector Experiences. This section is geared more to people whose collections actually have genuine value, the kind of collection that museums seek. Still, I learned a lot about how those donor–museum connections work—or don’t work. Shirley also addresses art as investment.

pg ex 1Clearly, to cover this much ground with minimal text, none of these topics are covered in great depth. But that’s what is terrific about this book.

It gives a rather rollicking ride through the collector’s head, supported by engaging examples, image-heavy case studies, and loads of graphics.

My only quibble with this book is that I wish the publisher had done one more editing pass to assuage my personal annoyance at minor errors and small inconsistencies in editing style as well as a few typos, which shouldn’t happen in a book of this caliber. (Okay, most people won’t notice these, but still.)

I also want to note that the examples given in this book sometimes do reflect a lifestyle that not all of us can have. I’ll never be bidding at Christie’s nor will the DIA ever want my teapots.

pg ex 3Yet its principles are applicable to all of us who collect, no matter what the value of our collection.

And, this book gives insight into those behaviors that we all experience—such as why we can’t make a decision, why we buy something we don’t totally love but believe we can’t let get away, why we love bargains, or why we allow ourselves to be misled by a salesperson.

So if you’re intrigued by what your brain is actually doing when you’re contemplating buying yet another teapot that you don’t need but really really want, this is the book for you!

And no, there are never too many teapots if collecting them brings you joy. And Shirley successfully illustrates just why that is!

Available at Amazon.

I once asked Shirley what the difference was between collecting (me) and hoarding (my husband haha). She replied that when it brings pleasure, you’re a collector, but when it brings stress, you’ve crossed the line. Hmmm, not sure where the stress I feel when observing my husband’s many collections falls in this definition. . . .

–Lotis, Christopher J., and Michel D. Lee,
Symbols of Identity: Korean Ceramics from the Collection of Chester and Wanda Chang, Washington, D.C.: Asian Cultural History Program, Smithsonian Institution, 2011.
–Mueller, Shirley M.,
Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play, Seattle: Lucia/Marquand, 2019.

4 thoughts on “How Many Teapots Are Too Many? A Review of “Inside the Head of a Collector”

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