Monday, April 13, 2009

Collections of Nothing by William Davies King

I was quietly surprised by this memoir. I found the title interesting when someone posted it on a list serve, so I called it up at the library. At first, I thought the guy was a little too academic-y, and I would lose interest. (Published by University of Chicago Press!) But really, he wrote a rather touching account about collecting and why he collects and intersperses the story of his own collecting with the story of his life.

He collects--well, he literally collects nothing and has for his whole life. By nothing he means anything that has no value. Nothing he collects can be bought on e-bay or at an auction. No one would possibly place any value on the things he has accumulated: cereal boxes, stickers off fruits and vegetables, business cards, bottle caps, cream cheese boxes. You name it, if it is worthless, he saves it. His collections seem to be meticulously organized, and he devotes a good deal of care and attention to his monumental collection of all that is worthless in his life. The memoir alternates between funny:

"Labels that have been in direct contact with sticky
or greasy foods (like chocolate milk cartons or Crisco
wrappers) I usually don’t save, but some, such as
bacon boxes, are so appealing I can’t resist, even at
the risk of a little grease stain. The prospect of
having a binder filled with bacon boxes was one of my
early dreams and one of the justifications I offered
when people asked why I was collecting the stuff.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a book of bacon? Then,
a few years later, I more or less stopped eating bacon.
Even so, I have thirty-five different bacon boxes.”

And sweet:

"I can look at my label collection as a first-class
achievement or I can look at it as a river of pain.
I can view the collection as a marvelous fantasy or
as a mental block, breakthrough or disaster. I can
cling to it and also wish to throw it the hell out.
I deserve much more than a mountain of aging labels,
and at the same time I am enormously blessed to have
even that."

King is a professor of Theater and Drama at UCSB. His writing is honest and forthright. His personal tale of sorrow coupled with his facsinating and idiosyncratic collections reflected against oberservations about collecting of all kinds, really makes a nice rainy day read.

The picture on the front of the book is King's collection of envelope liners. You know, the envelope insides that are meant to keep nosy mail carriers from knowing how much the check your grandma sent you for your birthday is for. He cuts them out and mounts them on paper to the tune of 800 different liners. Who knew?

What do you collect? Does it take over your life? Could you ever part with it?

1 comment:

Steph said...

Wow - I like his comparison about it being a breakthrough or a disaster. Why not choose the happier one?