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2011-03, 369, Book Reviews, Neil A Radford


Collections of Nothing by William Davies King
University of Chicago Press, 2008 163 pp.


WHEN THE AUTHOR and his wife were separating she moved his possessions into the garage for him to load into a truck and take to his new home. The garage was filled, not just with his clothes and personal items, but also with his collections. Note the plural.
King is a compulsive collector and this eccentric autobiographical account of his collecting life and the mania of acquisition for its own sake will either be an inspiration or a warning. He collects items discarded as worthless, worth nothing, hence collections of nothing. ‘I collect nothing – with a passion. That is to say, I collect hardly anything that is collectible, not a thing anyone else would wish to collect, but at the end of the day, having myself wanted all these unwanted things, having procured and organised them – filed, boxed, arranged and fussed over them – I have a collection.’ The pity is that all these collections are useless, though King obviously finds them greatly satisfying.
At the age of 11 he was given a stamp album and several hundred stamps. He somehow found room for this among the travel brochures, bumper stickers, out-of-date calendars and other stuff which already filled the drawers in his room, and spent many happy hours sorting and affixing the stamps. The album‘s pages had photographs of the stamps toput there, and gradually these spaces were filled. But many gaps remained and he took to cutting out the little rectangles often printed on reply envelopes which say ‘Place Postage Stamp Here’ and inserting them in the unused spaces so as to fill up the page. Over the years, he believes, this absurd stamp collection ‘becomes more preciously valueless’.
Real and ersatz stamps are but the tip of what has become a titanic iceberg. In adult life he has collected such useless debris as:
• empty cereal boxes (1,579 when last counted in 2002)
• chain letters not sent on, thus risking bad luck
• family snapshots of unknown people
• labels from a wide range of products such as food, toiletries, medicines (18,000 of them ‘and it continues to grow daily’)
• luggage tags with three-letter airport abbreviations
• samples of patterned envelope linings used to prevent people from seeing what‘s inside (more than 800)
• business cards (6,000 but hardly in the same league as the Business Card Museum in Pennsylvania which has more than 300,000) and expired credit cards and library cards (400)
• small illustrations cut out from dictionaries and mounted (7,000 from 17 dictionaries).
The list could go on, but that will give the flavour. He estimates that the whole collection weighs two tons ‘leaving aside the books, records and sheet music’.
He says he has 8,500 books, mostly picked up from the free discard boxes outside secondhand bookshops, so they are damaged, incomplete, commercially worthless. He seems not to have any collecting plan for books, but mentions en passant books about mesmerism, spiritualism, magic, anything to do with 1850-51 in England or Scotland or 1895 in London, speaking in tongues, early photography, collecting, and various authors he likes, particularly Eugene O‘Neill.
Like many collectors he wonders what will happen to his treasures after he dies. Because of the nature of his collections he probably worries about this more than most of us do. His teenage children profess to be interested in inheriting them, but he seems unconvinced. He has thought of leaving it all to the Smithsonian Institution, but fears that they might not accept it. It would be just the thing if the Smithsonian wanted to mount an exhibition of, say, ‘bacon boxes of the 1980s’, but how likely is this?
At the risk of suggesting a layman‘s diagnosis it seems to me that King‘s hobby has become an obsession, and he is using his collecting as a shield against the insecurities brought on by various unpleasant things that have happened in his life. Although we are both collectors I couldn’t bear to sit next to him on a long plane trip. But he obviously enjoys spending enormous amounts of time sorting and classifying all his objects, and filling up the album or box so that he can start another one. It will not be a surprise to learn that King has been having psychotherapy for many years. However, he reveals that his therapist is also a prodigious collector, married to an even more prodigious collector. Whether his therapist is able to give him the practical assistance he obviously needs seems to me doubtful.
An interesting, well written but rather bizarre book. By all means add it to your collection.
Neil A Radford







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