An unintended collection?


Collections of Nothing, a book by William Davies King, is part memoir, part philosophical rumination about the meaning of collecting. King looks at the legacy of a life spent amassing…junk? random bits of debris? worthless trash? and wonders what it says about himself as an individual and about humanness more generally. Plenty of people collect things — in fact, plenty of people spend significant time, energy, and money on collecting — but King does not go after common collectibles (think baseball cards, or Fiesta ware). He says over and over, in eloquent prose, that from a young age he collected “nothing.” A few examples: 53 empty Cheez-It boxes; photographs of strangers; variations on the “Place Stamp Here” square found on the upper right corner of some business-reply envelopes. These last he used to fill empty spaces in a stamp album that could have become a prized possession but that instead became early evidence, for King, of a profound malaise, an emotional disconnection. 

But why not interpret such a quirky choice as an act of defiant creativity? a Zen-like gesture that signals the “not-there” counterpart of every “there”? Why decide that the odd embrace of these usually unloved objects is shameful? Can’t it be a celebration of eclecticism?

I’m not yet far enough into this book to know if these are unfair questions, but here’s one more: what’s the difference between collecting and hoarding? Are collectors neat but hoarders messy? Or does it have to do with the deeper emotional valence accorded the objects themselves? I’m curious how King will decide what is the “real” meaning of these unusual assemblages, these very particular and mundane bits of material culture.