Oh boy, oh boy, there's nothing like opening the mail, finding a book you requested for a reason you've forgotten already, and, on the basis of a few opening paragraphs, knowing you're going to fall in love. I can't remember what drove me to ask for a copy of William Davies King's upcoming Collections of Nothing, advertised as a "part memoir, part reflection on the mania of acquisition" by a man who has been driven to accumulate a "monumental mass of miscellany, from cereal boxes to boulders to broken folding chairs," but here's how it begins:
On a hot summer day in 1998, I pulled up at the house I still owned with the woman who was soon to become my ex-wife to find that she had delivered every item connected with me to the garage. My surprise was not that she had divvied up our goods, though I would rather have done the work myself, but the spectacle of what an immense and unattractive volume of me there was, much of it retained only because I collect, as a collector collects, compulsively. And then some.
There I was, forty-three, wearing shorts and an old T-shirt already heavy with sweat, in the dusty glare of desert suburbia, Ryder truck still hissing and ticking at my back as the great panel door swung open with a shriek. The door shuddered, and I shuddered too. There were the usual black plastic bags of shoes and canted piles of shirts on hangers, portable radios and razors and power tools, but also the singular multiplicity of diverse collections of nothing, a junkstore dumpstore's highlights, stuff of no clear value to anyone but someone like me.
I am a collector, something a lot of people can understand. My being a collector of nothing will require explanation. I am on the small side. A neighbor told my parents I was the only child he'd ever seen who could walk upright under a table. Eventually I grew to a normal height, but I sometimes think of myself as an overgrown runt. My weight has always hovered just above normal, which is typical, I think, among people who grew up fighting for a larger portion. I have two younger brothers who could easily be cheated, though I chose not to, and an older sister who always wanted it all and could not be cheated because she was disadvantaged, disabled, disastrous, and later insane. Because of her, I tend to measure my fair and healthy share, then sneak a bit more. My eating disorder is in my collecting. I eat nothing, in excess.
I've read accounts of people who one day give away everything, purging themselves of material association. They report feeling liberated, disburdened, and alive for the first time. The moment of my divorce might have been a good moment for me to cleanse myself that way. I did not like what I saw under the bare bulb in that shadowy garage. There, mixed in with my necessaries, shone forth what had doomed me to a life of collecting--that super-superfluity of sub-substance. During twenty years of living with my wife, decades of relentless acquisition, I had found ways of weaving my collections into the lattice of our life. Now, brought out from concealment, arranged in heaps, not carelessly but also not artfully, these things looked like signs of hoarding, which is a diagnosis, not a hobby.
So I transported the cumbersummation of me into the Ryder and into my new, unmarried life, in the hope that I might locate myself somewhere in the midst of it.
What can you tell of a book from the first page and a half? Sometimes a lot, sometimes not, but in this case I'll be stunned (and crushed) if someone who shows this clear-eyed (even cold-eyed) style, with such concentrated power, doesn't end up sustaining it for the 161 pages that remain. Right now I've just begun another piece of candy I've been hoarding for a while (Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, a book I missed when it came out in February that's turning out to be as delicious as I'd hoped), but it's going to be hard not to keep going into Collections of Nothing. --Tom