Newcombe Book Review

di Mark Irwin


Rick Newcombe, In Search of Pipe Dreams,
New Edition, Sumner Books, 2006, 267pps.
ISBN 0-96666239-1-6. 


--. Still Searching for Pipe Dreams, 
Sumner Books, 2012, 173ppg. 


     In Search of Pipe Dreams originally came out in 2003 (2nd ed., 2006), and in many ways it remains the defining book of what I like to call the hobby’s New Golden Age. If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself as either a beginning or experienced pipeman to do so immediately. Go ahead and do yourself another favor and pick up its sequel / companion / continuation, Still Searching for Pipe Dreams (2012) while you’re at it, because with it you can postpone the inevitable “Wow, that’s all? No more?” feeling you’ll get at the end of the first book.

     In Search of Pipe Dreams is a collection of Newcombe’s writings spanning 1993 to 2003; it has since been translated into German and also Chinese—the latter remade into a gorgeous coffee table book. Still Searching for Pipe Dreams takes up where the first book leaves off, bringing us up to 2011. Rick freely ranges through the wide variety of topics, personalities and issues at the forefront of the hobby today. In this way he closely reflects (and often anticipates or influences) trends in the hobby, from his early championing of high grade Danish pipe-makers (legends like Sixten Ivarrson, Bo Nordh and Jess Chonowitsch), to how and why to open up the draw on a pipe, to the issue of fills, the role of China on the current scene, and his own slant on Hanna’s “is it the briar or the brand?” discussion. 

     But to see Newcombe’s books as written for and about only the deep-pocketed or lovers of Danish high-grades is to miss their point almost entirely. Newcombe’s real agenda, like all great mystics, is deceptively simple: to “enjoy and appreciate” the hobby and its practitioners. You’ll find this proved time and time again throughout the two books, but you have to keep in mind the double-lens of his a priori—he writes through his own specific collecting interests to promote the hobby as it can be practiced by any pipe-smoker at any income bracket, from inexpensive estate pipes and factory pipes through whatever pipes take the pipeman’s fancy and fit his pocket-book. 

     It might be instructive to compare Newcombe’s two volumes with another crucial contemporary book in the hobby that came out between them, Gary Shrier’s Confessions of A Pipeman (1st ed., 2008). Both authors employ the conversational, even dialogical style that marks the current hobby as a whole. Both promote critical thinking over the broadest range of topics for both novice and master (we are pipe-smokers, are we not?). But Shrier will, in nearly every case, play devil’s advocate to the spirit of Newcombe’s work. Whereas Shrier tries to impose a structure and form to both his narrative and, by extension, what constitutes the “true pipeman,” Newcombe eschews most structures in favor of relationship. In terms of Paul Ricoeur’s Interpretation Theory, Newcombe’s thinking is founded on a “hermeneutics of  trust,” while the Schrier’s is built on a “hermeneutics of suspicion”—and there are hazards for embracing either one. There are real worldview polarities at stake here, each with a long history and each with strong proponents: one based on suspicion, dogma, hierarchy and structure, the other based on trust, faith, relationship and fluidity. Some would say one seems critical, closed, opinionated and inflexible, and the other accepting, open, tolerant and flexible. Some would say one hermeneutic is realistic, the other foolish. As I said, there are hazards to both, so you pay your money and take your choice—and in the case of the books by either gentleman, your money will be well spent.