The Subject is Collecting

The story starts several months ago, when we went to visit friends here in Washington on a day when their granddaughter, a college freshman at the University of California at Santa Barbara was in town to visit.  We enjoyed her discussion of her first year at college, and were both amused and intrigued at her discussion of her small, freshman seminar about “collecting”, and the instructor, a man whose name I did not (not surprisingly) recognize, William Davies King.

Her story was basically as follows:  Freshmen had to take a seminar.  She could not decide which one to take. King’s seminar still had open places, and the topic sounded like it might be interesting, although unrelated to anything she was really interested in. The instructor, she reported, was an unusual fellow (she described him as an old man, probably about 80) who collected unusual things, things other people threw away.  She gave, as one example, his collection of rocks and pebbles (not like her grandfather’s 70 year old beautiful collection of ores and minerals and agates, but a collection of pebbles he had simply picked off the street).  She gave as another his enormous collection of cereal boxes.

This led to a Google search, which told me that Davies was a professor of drama at the school, and (I chuckled) in his 50s, not his 80s.  I also learned he was a sort-of artist, who made collages by combining things found in books (destroying the original books as he went along his task), among other things.  And that he was an unstoppable collector.  I also saw that he had written a book entitled “Collections of Nothing” that had been published by, of all places, the University of Chicago Press.  Somehow, my wife found two copies of that book, one for me and one for our friends.  I finished reading it this morning. I a not giving the book a strong recommendation, and I am not really writing a review about it.

King appears obsessive about his collecting (he says he is not obsessive, but I don’t think his judgment on the subject in reliable), and he generally collects things that others throw out.

Take the cereal boxes.  As of 2002 (the book came out in 2008, but was years in the making, apparently), he had over 1500 cereal boxes.  This is only one category, however. as he has collections of about every food item he has ever stumbled upon, and every household cleaning item.  For a start.  His major collection is sort of a collection of labels.  He has been collecting for over 25 years.  He collects things he should throw out, things he finds on the street, things friends send or give him and, yes, things he digs out of other peoples’ trash cans.

He started collecting (other than stamps when he was young), when he was in prep school (he went to Andover), when he concentrated on found metal objects – I guess that would include a screw, a bolt, a piece of tin, an old tool.  Anything metal, which he then would clean and polish, and keep.  (He tells one story of finding a discarded Norge refrigerator and cutting his hand badly as he tried to pry the Norge label off the refrigerator door, but this was a rare example of using effort, rather than just reaching down.)

He carefully organizes and sorts all of his collections.  For example, in his food label collection, he will have tuna fish can labels in one or more binder (or one or more box), and to demonstrate how hard it is to sort everything, he asks a rhetorical question: how would you describe honey? Into what category would you put it?

“Collections of Nothing” is more than just a description of his collections, however  It is also an autobiographical memoir.  Normally, you would think this would be good – anything could be better than a four page, small print list of all the bottled water bottles in his collection, right?  But, alas, this is not the case.  For at least two reasons.  First, he tries to blame his psyche, his entire psychological make up, on his childhood (seemingly normal, except for his late older sister, who had cerebral palsy, wild mood swings, an imperious manner, and was eventually institutionalized) and his tenuous relationship with his parents, schoolmates and siblings.  In mid-life, he had discovered therapy, and obviously believes that he has gained amazing insights into his behavior and emotional composition.  (At the time he wrote the book, he had been in therapy eight years.)  Second, because his life just isn’t that interesting (it is to him, but not to others).

I tend to think that collecting is not the result of a mental pathology, but must be built into your psyche from an early age, whatever the reason.

Take me, for example.

When I was very young, I collected marbles, and baseball cards and stamps.  When I got a bit older, the marbles became less interesting, and I substituted bottle caps which I found on the sidewalks and in the parks (just as King found his early collection of metal items).

Now, if I had to pick something that triggered this inborn instinct to collect, I wouldn’t look to a dysfunctional family, but rather to a very regular and conservative family life. My upbringing was filled with the routine.  Very little was done that was different or out of the ordinary.  I am not only referring to big things (like we never took trips to the Soviet Union), but to very small things.  What I am thinking of is soap and toothpaste. Every bar of soap in the house (except for laundry) was Palmolive. Every tube of toothpaste was Colgate.

On the one hand, I didn’t find anything unusual about this.  I, like most kids, I assume, thought this was right and proper.  But it meant that it was easy for me to see the exotic in things that were a little different.  For instance, I had friends who used Ipana toothpaste.  My God, how exciting I thought.  And some used Lifebuoy soap.  Yes, using Lifebuoy soap seemed to me very adventuresome (although a little frightening if I were in a bathroom in a friend’s house and had to wash my hands with this strange non-green soap).

And the same went for food.  When I would have lunch at a friend’s house (of course, I am talking elementary school days, before I became a fairly independent being), I would get very nervous if I were served a food we didn’t get at home.  I would not want to eat it (the frightening part) and I wouldn’t want to avoid it (the adventuresome part). So I would panic.  I remember in first or second grade eating lunch at a classmates and they served hash-brown potatoes, not quite mashed and sort of brown in spots. I panicked and had to go home.

I think it was the fear of the unusual and desire for the unusual that has kept with me all my life, and is the reason that I ventured into collections.  Here I could have the adventure of the search for the unusual (in the most conservative way, of course) and I could take possession of the unusual (in the safest way), and I could feel that I had somehow moved out of my little world.

Well, King has kept every label that has come his way the last 25 years or so.  I don’t know that I have ever kept a label.  (Well, maybe I have when I have been on trips to places afar.)  King regularly looks in trashcans (other peoples’) to see what he can find.  That I have never done.  And won’t.

That brings me to my collections.  The stamp collection still exists.  From time to time it comes out and gets a little attention, and I add to it here and there.  And of course my book collection is my biggest; there are about 10,000 books in the house, and about 7500 of them have been signed by the authors (famous and not so).  And yes, we do sell some of these books in our on-line book business (a signed copy of “The Agony and the Ecstasy” was sold this morning to a fellow in Albany), but I still look for books a few times a week and buy many more than we are selling.  And then there’s my signed LP collection – about 200 long playing record albums, mainly opera and Broadway musicals, signed by the artists (this is in addition to several hundred other old LPs that just sort of take up space at this point).  And I have my collection of about 125 souvenir items from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, prominently and carefully displayed in a place where hardly anyone ever sees them.  And my collection of old (I mean old) maps, some of which are framed and hung, and others of which sit in cardboard tubes (this is apart from my collection of newer maps – over a 1000 of these – they sit on a couple of crowded shelves in a closet).

Yes, and there are several boxes of foreign coins, some but not all of little if any value, and of political buttons in another box, and non-political buttons in still another.  There is my foreign paper money collection, my Stereopticon collection (mainly Russian and old American slides – several hundred), and a few boxes of post cards – largely pre-World War II, and a box of commemorative medals and pins (military, foreign, including Soviet pins), my sheet music collection (including over 100 pre-World War I songs, and many, many Al Jolson songs), my collection of old travel guides, and………..I guess you get the picture.

Now it is true that many of these collections have been mine for a long time – some have probably not been added to for 30 years.  But they are still here.  And most of them are fairly well organized – you know, a place for everything, and everything in its place.

And, indeed, there are some new collections that, to a normal person, would make little sense. Most prominent among these is my new collection of used cigarette packages.  I now have 69 cigarette packages, each different, all of which I have found on the streets of Washington (with two exceptions – one found in upstate NY and one in Asheville NC) over the past 18 months.  Now, I have never bought cigarettes, and, as Mr. Clinton so eloquently stated, I have never inhaled.  Nevertheless, I get a thrill when I find an empty package of Algerian Winstons, or Spanish Gauloises, or Chinese Double Happiness, or Canadian Senecas on the street and proud when I put it in the large box that contains the others.

In part, of course I am filling my time (pleasurably) as a retired senior.  In part, I am still looking for something unusual – something that brings my life, which is still fairly conservative although not at all like my parents’, into contact with something that I am not otherwise in contact with.

William Davies King does not know what his two daughters will eventually do with his collections. I don’t know what my two daughters will eventually do with mine. It will be interesting to see.  Too bad I won’t be around to know.

2 thoughts on “The Subject is Collecting

  1. I just walked in the house and checked my email and found your post. Oh my, I have been thinking a lot about collecting during the past few years. Part of this has to do with my mother’s death and the dispersion of her belongings. So, she collected perfume bottles, ceramic boxes, snuff bottles, bears, dolls, eggs, paper weights, and more. She also had collections from her family including meersham pipes, ceramic figurines and more. As we divided up and gave away most of this stuff, I thought about her joy in accumulating things, finding the perfect addition to her collection. I must admit that I am not immune to the collecting syndrome. I have at various times collected matchbook covers (used to be free and available when people used to smoke), postcards, ducks, small native American pots, boxes, fossil rockes, art deco pottery, Inuit carvings, mermaids, stereopticons (4) and photos for them (have about 200 including some rare ones), cookbooks (even though I usually make up my own recipes), hostas (I go for variety not garden design), and probably more that I am not thinking about right now. I have tried to “cure” myself of this collecting but I think it won’t work. I notice that both my grandchildren have fallen into the same pattern. First Isaac collected Thomas the tank engine cars and other equipment. Even before he could read, he would go through the catalogs and check off everything he had and what he still needed to complete his collection. Now he does the same thing with Pokemon cards and various types of Lego sets. I also see Naomi with a similar behavior pattern. Some of the collecting has to do with the fun of the search and the joy of finding just the perfect addtion to a collection. And for some collections, the items are cues to memories. Anyhow, I just had to respond to your post. Collecting in my family goes back at least three generations, and now seems to have gone forward at least one or two. One other thing: if you collect things, people know what to give you for gifts. We’ll have to talk about his next time I see you. We can compare our stereo photo collections.

    • Thanks for the response. My collections are of interest at least to me. And I’m not nuts, like King (I don’t think). Look forward to seeing you sometime – but when?

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