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Collections of Nothing
Collections of Nothing
William Davies King
University Of Chicago Press, 2008
160 pp., $22.00

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Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore


"To Collect Is to Write a Life"

Intimations of hope fulfilled in the memoir of a man who treasures trash.

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William Davies King, author of a quite wonderful new book, Collections of Nothing, has collected by his own estimate something in the neighborhood of 18,000 labels.

We're talking food–packaging labels, amiably sharing shelf space with say 500 crown bottle caps, and what may well be the world's most significant collection of "Place Stamp Here" boxes cut from the upper right hand corner of envelopes, an assemblage not to be confused with King's hundreds of snipped bits of lining cut from security envelopes. Who knew there were so many patterns? Who cared? King, for one, and very possibly his collected readers by the time he's finished with us. King says we each throw away a ton of trash a year, and inasmuch as his collection weighs a mere two tons, he is by definition disciplined.

Emboldened by his example, I have begun a little collecting of my own. I don't want to brag, but it could be the world's largest collection of William Davies King quotes. Not too shabby, seeing as I just started collecting a week ago. And he, who has no patience whatsoever with the persnickety demands of stamp albums and pre–fab stick–on labels, won't fuss, I think, if I display them any way I like. If King believes anything, it's that the collector can do what he jolly well pleases with his whatever occupies his shoeboxes.

So. My collection. The order and the asterisks, my own.

* "The completion of the world of the collector is the summation of all that is still wanted, the totality of expectation."

* "Collecting is 'religious' in the etymological sense of gathering or binding together again. Precious objects coalesce, and the divine (or the diabolical) is there in the collectible. Collecting is a form of sorcery (or prayer)."

*  "Life marches on, while collectors trail behind, carrying a shovel and a sack."

*  "Collecting is a constant reassertion of the power to own, an exercise in controlling otherness and finally a kind of monument building to insure survival after death."

* "You can often read the collector in his collection. To collect is to write a life."

* "We are born wanting to be had and held, born collectible, and with a little luck we never stop being prize possessions. But with self–knowledge comes self–doubt, and never more so than in the exchange that comes with relationship, taking an other and giving oneself. Above all, are we dear?"

* "Collecting constantly exclaims a series of losses. An old clock in a collection does not so much tell time, as it tells of time, and the tale is a sad one."

* "My love life did not include myself."

* "The first thing I needed to do was collect myself."

* "My joy felt like sadness, and my good fortune like dust."

* "I fear there is that essential emptiness inside it all, a basic absence which I obsessively try to fill."

* "My collection answers to a different god within the object. In a sense I'd call it the god Not There, the absence of immanence."

* "I was seeking something adequately low to constitute a world I could stand above, my kingdom, lordly over it."

* "The means of organization had to do with a personal experience of nothingness, coming from hollow afternoons, uneventful evenings, and nights alone … trying to guard against becoming a Person Who Was No Person."

* "After years would I learn to cherish my own hold on life, thumb–printed, chemically degraded, time–worn and cracked though it might be."

* "I've been buying freedom from myself, and it has not been cheap."

* "The compulsion to collect is a struggle against death."

* "The overwhelming odds are you'll lose money in the game, you'll die in this life. I played the longest gamble of all by choosing to ante nothing, again and again, at a table by myself."

* "I want you to see that I have harnessed something of my energies, secured something of my self."

* "I want to believe some better end to the story can be found."

There you have it. And that's just my first album. Let me jump right in here and refuse to be accused of attempting to sum up the man and his collecting ways. That could not be done. Though King himself comes awfully close to summing up all men and our collecting ways. He names our longing, shows us photographs of empty spaces, lets us listen to the hollow sounds in vacant rooms. As much as this (at times almost surreal) examination catalogues the things that King and other people stockpile and amass, it is more truly an examination of the spaces so in need of something, of the emptinesses a life will try to fill. One strength of this compendium, so stark and strong and honest, is that it does cause us to consider whether the existence of the empty spaces might just posit the existence of something meant to fill them.

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