Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Collections of Nothing" - William Davies King

"Collecting is a way of linking past, present, and future. Objects from the past get collected in the present to preserve them for the future. Collecting processes presence, meanwhile articulating the mysteries of desire. What people wanted and did not want drives what collectors want and do not want in anticipation of what future collectors will want or will not want... Usable things sometimes become collectible, but collectible things rarely become usable."

William Davies King's memoir, Collections of Nothing, is preventing me from getting sleep these days. I read it until my eyes close and then pick it up first thing in the morning. I checked it out from the library thinking of the woman who made the cat scrapbook and now I'm fascinated by the weird things everyone collects. For example, Davies turned his childhood stamp collecting book into this:

"For the last twenty-five years I have been placing in the vacant spaces of The New Pioneer Album those little rectangles you find in the upper right-hand corner of certain envelopes, stamp outlines usually containing instructions to Place (or Put or Affix) Stamp (or Postage or Postage Stamp) Here."

King began his collections as a teenager. On long walks, he picked up discarded pieces of metal and later polished them until they were shiny. The more useless the better. The first collection in his "adult life" was the plastic and paper labels of all the food products he consumed. He didn't save duplicates but only variations in the advertising. This became a record of his life; an autobiography in consumption.

"Mostly I save paper, polyurethane bags, cellophane, and cardboard. If a label is badly damaged I don't bother, but a little tear or stain or wrinkle is okay. 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 cannot resist, even at the risk of a little grease stain.... Instead of remaining loyal to a brand, even one I had always used, I started exploring all the other brands, and the crunchy as well as the smooth; cinnamon as well as plain; small, medium, "convenient family, and jumbo (inconvenient family). A collection that was initially 'about my consumption' began to shape my consumption as I became a self-conscious collector."

At the time of this writing, King had "83 binders of flat labels and 51 boxes of miscellaneous boxes, not including cereal boxes, which are in such an array of containers, it is difficult to count."

"The bigger the collection gets, the harder it is to keep. The bigger the collection gets, the more completely it represents me and my history, and the more I feel oppressed by it. The bigger the collection gets, the more extraordinary and 'valuable' it is, and the more I mourn the thousands of hours spent assembling it. In the hole and on the peak, I love this collection and hate it, and I keep it because it expressed me, though rudely. It is a poor collection wishing it were rich. It is a celebration of material culture wrapped around a contempt for material culture. It is a burgeoning collection full of emptiness. It is a collection of nothing. This is my title, and I am its lord, its consumer and author and subject and victim."

"On a personal level, the collection speaks of love and its loss, self-worth and self-hatred, and the awkwardness of my own connection to other people. On an impersonal level, it speaks of the riches and excesses of an era of late 20th century life. It testifies to the remarkable liberty of a middle-class academic to satisfy his hungers in diverse, luxurious, laughably mundane, and occasionally exotic ways, and at the same time it begs the question of why that liberty was exercised to these ends."

"There are collectors who do not amass, in a physical sense, such as those who fill their heads with shaggy dog jokes, bird watchers who hope to check off yet another species on their life list, others who collect one item only to discard another, and many who think small or even miniature (figurines, thimbles, coins, spoons, wee books). But collectors all occupy a conceptual space that is the enlarged but displaced sense of self. Every day in every way our collections will get better and better, even if the world does suck rocks."

"Collections are not merely owned, they are performed. They structure your life and assign roles."

One of my favorite collections in the whole book is envelope linings. King arranges the pages according to "stripes, florals, hatch-marks, trademarks, solids, airmail specials, and so on."

King's most recent collection is a close second:

"I had an old laboratory notebook: octavo, four hundred pages, and for years it awaited contents. But all at once I knew that I wanted to fill the book with the diminutive illustrations you find in dictionaries, those skimpy, anonymous imagettes, so obsequiously not Art. They aim only to convey one bite or two of verbiage from our world. Crafted as they are, and even stylish in their rejection of style, they refuse to draw attention to themselves, and never are they signed... Each page holds about 35 images, so the number of pictures in the book is in the neighborhood of 7000. To select and cut each image, to glue and position it, might take about three minutes. Thus, the book entailed approximately 350 hours of work. True, the work was relaxing to me, done in 2 or 3 hour evening stints, often to the accompaniment of fine music or a video, but still I spent nearly 6 percent of my life over those nine months executing this collection. By any accounting, I squandered this time, because there is no way, I believe, that this book could ever prove worthwhile by economic standards. At what was then minimum wage, $6.75/hour, the book cost about $2400 to produce, but here in Santa Barbara we aspire to what is called a "living wage," then calculated at $11/hour, which brings the cost of the book close to $4000. That does not count the cost of the Elmer's Glue or the notebook or the dictionaries themselves, which admittedly were cheap. I used 17 dictionaries to fill the book, and I'm sure I did not pay more than a dollar or two for any one of them. Many I got for free..."

This is a great book for anyone interested in collecting the normal and abnormal. It certainly makes me feel better about my collection of paper lunch bags and hair cut off my head since moving to the Midwest.

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