March 2009

Sarah Burke


Overcollected: Reading William Davies King's "Collections of Nothing"

An archive has been referred to as a “house of memory,” the place where an institution arranges, stores, protects or forgets its collected ephemera. Some houses embody this term. My parents’ house, for example, is packed with old clothing that fits no one, long-irrelevant documents in cardboard boxes, hundreds of National Geographics and National Reviews in no particular order, piles of unopened junk mail from the 1980s. Old photographs of family share space with a Christmas crèche that never gets put in its box. Heirlooms -- blankets crocheted by my great-grandmother -- share space with trash. And I haven’t even mentioned the strange nooks and buried hoards of the basement. Some houses are built on the stuff of memory, infused with it to their foundations to the extent that it is hard to think of them as anything other than repositories. Materials accumulate around humans like shells do around those crustaceans that gather bits of sand and dirt and process them into a protective armor. I cannot think of anyone other than my family ever living in that house because I cannot imagine moving all that stuff.

A professional archive, of course, has been weeded and whittled down, stored and processed in such a way that a researcher can find the thing she needs with minimal fuss. Acid-free boxes and Mylar sleeves guard the stuff of memory from its own tendency to corrode. Not so our personal archives, which are often piled and stuffed and hidden away in such a way that the things we save surprise us now and then when we find them: did I really buy all those postcards? Did I really save that catalogue? What deranged reason did I have for filling the pocket of this jacket with small stones? Why is my collection of teas so immaculately organized while my tax documents appear to have been redeployed as bookmarks and coasters? And, to be honest, am I ever going to drink some of these teas, or is their only purpose to display my eclectic taste?

At one point in Collections of Nothing, William Davies King muses about donating his collection to the Smithsonian, but decides that it would be either misappropriated for “decoration for a ‘World of Ronald Reagan’ show” or hidden away from those who could appreciate it. He knows that it would not receive the attention it deserves -- which is, of course, the attention that only he can give. As a child King briefly collected stamps. In his adolescence he began to accumulate shiny metal machine parts and scraps. For the past few decades he has been collecting candy wrappers, cereal boxes, water bottles, and other detritus of consumer culture. He collects business cards and chain letters. The cover of this book is illustrated with samples from his collection of envelope liners. The title comes from his assertion that the things he collects are value-less to anyone but him. His is a collection of things that to most people are trash, for which there are no online communities or eBay auctions, items that are unique because all the other copies of that coupon have long since turned to sludge in some landfill.

One of the problems with the book is that King and his reader are to some extent at cross-purposes. King ostensibly wrote the book to understand why he collects (and specifically why he collects materials that to other people look like trash), and via a series of psychoanalytical tableaus he un-boxes a Baby Boomer story of an alienated but attentive child who found beauty in peculiar places, who occasionally chose the formation of his collection over the formation of genuine human relationships. It is not a cautionary tale, but it is sometimes a sad story of what happens when obsession is allowed to escalate. King can come across as solipsistic and selfish, not just a quirky collector but also an addict, an artist, an armchair psychiatrist. As a reader, however, every subsequent description of King’s collections filled me with curiosity to see the things for myself, to celebrate his obsession. I thought, this collection should be turned into a traveling exhibition and experienced in its weird complexity. I Googled King and found pictures of him standing proudly among his cereal boxes. I found an excellent feature on that illustrates selections from his collages of books (a dictionary, an atlas).

So in the end I wasn’t sure if King was proud or ashamed of this weird thing he has assembled over the decades. And I didn’t entirely trust his explanations of the familial and personal forces that drove him to collect. The causal relationships seemed too simple to have created such a complex collection. If an archive is memory, then we have to recognize that memory does not work systematically. We choose to remember some things and to forget others. Just as an object hidden at the bottom of a pile may as well not exist at all, some memories get hidden under others while the neurons chart new paths around them. Remembering can be a labyrinthine and dishonest process.

King’s book is short but dense, encompassing in 163 pages an autobiography, a self-psychoanalysis, an apologia, and an initial finding aid to his collection. He enjoys wordplay: puns, chiasmus, unexpected and creative repetition. His sentences can act like linguistic traps, making you linger to puzzle them out. They give the sense of someone trapped by his own hyper-creativity:

I have pulled my car to the side of the road to walk back a hundred yards and pluck an eye-catching Wheatables box from the weeds. My science has been to accelerate these subparticular ephemerals in order to glimpse the quirks and quiddities of a minimal attachment to the world of grave objects. Such has been my choosing, and so I have subdefined what’s “choice”-ish, what James Joyce might call nadathing, less than the pinpoint eye might compass, even on a cloudy night. Figments of fragments.

On the other hand, parts of the book are elegantly simple. King’s descriptions of possessions begin to acquire poetic qualities. He admires John Ashbery, and many of the lists he includes to illustrate his mania have echoes of that poet’s interest in variety. Like his collages, King’s lists justify their creation by means of their eclectic beauty. An excerpt from his collection of water bottles includes:

Deep Riverrock
Deer Park
Déja Blue
De Los Angeles
Deveron Valley Sport
Eau de Cristaline
Ein Gedi
Fat Free H2O

The imposed form -- in this case alphabetization, in other cases classification of his labels by type (“Canned Food,” “Crackers,” “Fresh Food -- Vegetables”) -- gives order to the chaos of King’s accumulated objects. Taxonomies are always elegant failures to describe reality. In King’s case, these lists are a way of exerting control over possessions that helped destroy one marriage and have devoured years of his life. The chaos doesn’t give up without a fight, as illustrated by King’s anxiety about certain foodstuffs:

Are pretzels still in “Snack foods” (exclusive of “Potato Chips”), or should they go in a new, dedicated “Pretzels” binder? What about bread sticks? In “Crackers” or in “Baked Goods”? Aren’t they pretzel-like? Sometimes, it’s hard to recall the current system across the several months in between sorting sessions, and I have no Dewey Decimal System, no Excel database. The world offers food in sloppy profusion to the middle-class American consumer, and I know well how far short of Linnaeus I fall in arranging the genera and species of groceries.

King’s collecting has sometimes been a sad ordeal, an addictive behavior like any other. Collections of Nothing is a view from inside a set of compulsive behaviors with which King has come to terms and to some extent mastered. He is a classic example of the subjectivity of value. King’s collection may end up mattering to people other than himself, or it may one day revert to trash. In the end, is scanning the side of the road for hubcaps so different from other human-object relationships, such as bidding for lunchboxes on eBay or polishing the family silver?

We animate objects by means of our attention to them. Whether it’s composed of Renaissance bookbindings, Victorian ceramic, or Cold War cereal boxes, the collection is an extension of the collector. Theorists have suggested this ontological connection. Surely King is the case in point.