Collections of Nothing

June 19, 2008

If you were to buy one cup of coffee per day for a year from one of the many coffee shops whose paper cups are marked by distinctive logos, you would generate 12.3kg of coffee cups. If, however, there was someone like William Davies King in the vicinity, someone who happens to be taken with coffee-cup logos, your trash might become his treasure.

Despite the title of this book, King has collected something - and a lot of it. He has collected 44 varieties of tuna-fish labels, 6 varieties of water-bottle labels, and an unstated number of candy wrappers, bacon boxes, cigar bands, luggage tags, envelope liners, cereal boxes and more.

All of these things are meaningful to King, for to him they represent the psychological physicality of his life. Emotionally raw and intellectually honest, Collections of Nothing is part memoir and part chronicle of the human impulse to acquire things. King's own impulse pushes beyond simple acquisition, for he sees value in the things that others overlook. His collecting impulse began, in his own words, with a pre-teen desire to fill up the emptiness in his life and to become "a collector/hero" worthy of his own story.

This book is about collecting, but it is also a book about King's own emotional journeys. We accompany him in a rented truck as he picks up his collection from his soon to be ex-wife's garage. There, King sees, packaged in a vast display of black garbage bags, "an immense and unattractive volume of me". From this beginning, his narrative moves back in time, chronicling the piecemeal fashioning of his "nothingness", back to his childhood in Ohio. We learn about a sister born with cerebral palsy and "some mental insufficiencies", and how her struggles dominated his family's life. As she slipped further away from the family, King became entrapped in the "metaphysics of collecting". This passion follows him throughout his life. Through a discussion of the objects he has collected, King portrays what it is to be human, to be confused, to be lonely, to make mistakes, and to try to fix them. At the core of his collecting is the thrill of finding something (or someone) to care about; how one's impulse to label or contain it (or them) is a way of imposing order on the chaos of existence.

Although I understand why King categorises what he collects as "nothing" (as in "nothing of importance"), his collecting ultimately makes us think about how categories of value are formed and reformed. If he had enough money to start his own museum and was able to put his vast collection of the seemingly mundane on display, would he reclassify his collection as "something"? Would others? Would it be seen as artistic, imaginative or inventive, rather than simply worthless or trashy? In this sense, we have to consider whether garbage can be reclassified in a way that infuses value into refuse. We must then ask if doing so would make us rethink our habits of consumption or if in reifying a selection of refuse while leaving the rest in landfills, those habits would simply be reproduced?

How a reader answers that last question will determine whether or not one sees King as a "collector/hero" whose story really is worth reading.

Collections of Nothing

By William Davies King
University of Chicago Press
ISBN 9780226437002
Published 30 June 2008

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