A Passion For Stuff: 'Collections Of Nothing'

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William Davies King wants what you don't. He collects things such as chopstick wrappers, chain letters, cat food labels ... you name it. In his book, Collections of Nothing, he wonders whether his compulsion is just mania, or more.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. William Davies King is a collector, passionate, some might even say manic, a constant and steady amasser of - well, of nothing. Let me explain. His collections include almost 18,000 food labels, 7,000 dictionary illustrations, 500 bottle caps. In fact, most of the things King collects is stuff we throw away. His book, "Collections of Nothing," is a great deal more than a catalog of his junk. It's a search for meaning in the hundreds of thousands of things he's collected over the years, about the human impulse to gather - books, paintings, statues, plastic spoons, whatever.

So, if you are an avid or, one might even say, obsessive collector of something that's sometimes hard to explain to others, tell us what role collecting plays in your life. Tell us your story; 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation.

Later in the hour, we'll bring you an update as Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich makes what may be a short-lived appointment to the U.S. Senate, and we'll look at the boundaries of political and presidential satire and whether they were breached in the song "Barack the Magic Negro." But first, William Davies King joins us. He's a professor of dramatic art at UC Santa Barbara. He's joins us from a studio in Santa Barbara, California. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor WILLIAM DAVIES KING (Theater, UCSB; Author, "Collections of Nothing"): Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

CONAN: And I wanted to read you a part of your book. And this is from page 37. A collector, you write, can be an ascetic, someone who cultivates only one narrow category of collectible and possesses little else. A collector can be an omnivore, always looking for ways to extend one category to all others. A collector can start small and, by concentrating his particular effort, wind up with an empire or start big and wind up with a gem. A collector can do almost anything, so long as it tells an heroic story. Somehow, I had to become a collector hero, so that a story might be told of me. Collector hero - tell us a little bit more about that.

Prof. KING: (Laughing) Well, one thing you could collect would be collectors. And collectors are - as I just - as that passage suggested - of huge variety. Not all collectors do what I do, which was to come to collecting as a means of coping with stress and distress in my life. But some do, and I am one of those.

And so, in my case, collecting was a survival skill. It was a way of kind of coping with some troubling things that occurred early in my life and that it actually functioned well for. So, in my case, the collecting became a way of structuring my life and a way of giving some meaning to my life and therefore, it became a narrative that I could live through, that had a beginning, a middle and, someday, an end.

CONAN: Is your stuff - is it in part a definition of you?

Prof. KING: Absolutely, it's a definition to me. And I think pretty much everyone's stuff is a definition. There's a new book called "Snoop," which is an investigation of the things that people own - very interesting book.

CONAN: We've talked about it on this program. Yeah.

Prof. KING: Oh, good. The thing that distinguishes collecting is that there is a kind of craziness to it. We hear a lot about Ponzi schemes these days…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Prof. KING: And, in a way, what collectors do is willingly and knowingly engage in a kind of Ponzi scheme in which they invest in an object which has value just because other people believe it has value. And they're - and that other people are willing to invest in it also. And if everyone suddenly agreed that, say, Beanie Babies had no value, then the value would collapse. And that's more or less what happened.

CONAN: There were - a big bubble in the market. (Laughing) Yes.

Prof. KING: Yes. But my objects do not have investment value and partly I came to that because, as a young man, I didn't have money to invest in collectible objects and yet I saw that collecting things was a way of forming an identity. And so, I came to collect things that had absolutely no value and, more or less, paradoxically treat them as prizes and pieces of art.

CONAN: There is a moment in your book where you describe - you went to a prep school in New England where you took over a black box theater there and, for the first time in your life, presented your collection.

Prof. KING: And I presented it - I called the theater that day a gallery - the Ord(ph) gallery. And the notion was that it was as if I was the curator of this enormously valuable collection and each object had a story and a history and was well worth close examination. And in fact, the people who came that day engaged in that very, very nicely and they subscribed to that idea that there is value in junk.

CONAN: Curator, impresario, and also maintenance man?

Prof. KING: In some ways, that notion of the sort of janitorial, custodial caring of the lesser things of the world, including the trash that has to be taken out - that notion of the janitorial closet that contains a few culled objects, that is an identity that, in some ways, I perversely embraced. I say, perversely because I was going to these elite educational institutions and I became a professor and yet, something about that - the worthless and the discarded - really touched my heart.

CONAN: Yet, throughout this and providing your life meaning and a structure that helped you cope with difficult situations in all of your life - yet, you also write about - a thread throughout this is self-hatred.

Prof. KING: Well…(Laughing) …yes, and probably the initiating anecdote of this is - goes back to my early childhood. I came from a family that is in some ways very ordinary, very comfortable upbringing - middle to upper-middle class suburban Ohio. I was the second of four children. But I did have an older sister, eight years older, who was born with physical and mental problems, which eventually culminated, when she was about 18 years old, in a schizophrenic breakdown.

And as an 11-year-old boy, there was some way that I internalized the consequence to her. I realized that I had a certain antagonism to her because she was very difficult to cope with, very emotional and very - and so, when this catastrophic thing happened to her, I internalized it as guilt and, of course, sadness as well. But the guilt led to something that really ate away at me.

CONAN: You had, in some sense, wished this would happen?

Prof. KING: Well, I think any sibling will talk about - there're moments that you have when you perhaps wish that the other does not exist and they are fragmentary and they're fleeting and usually they're overwhelmed by love. And in this case, however, the catastrophe was pretty monumental and very - not easy to overcome.

CONAN: If you'd like to talk with Dave King about his collections or, more importantly, about what role collections play in your life, how they help define you and the world around you, give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. And let's talk with Richard, Richard on the line with us from San Antonio.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes, sir, I enjoy your show very much...

CONAN: Thank you.

RICHARD: Listened for years. I actually collect - it sounds weird, but the collection I collect is online and it's electronic gain from World of Warcraft. And many people do this. What they do is they collect items in the game - first time for anything. And the account can actually gain value, for example, my account's worth over $1000.

And I've used it as a distraction from real life problems with family or whatever the case may be, economically. And actually, I sold the account and it's actually helped me, financially and sort of emotionally, to get through a hard time. I don't know if that's any relevance to you.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting because Dave King writes in his book that real collectors don't ever sell anything.

RICHARD: Yeah, well I've kind of - the thing is that (unintelligible) an account. And the first account I made $1000 with. Now, I'm trying to get back that collection again. It's hard - it was hard to sell it. It was a hard decision. But you know, you sort of have to sell things that you...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

RICHARD: Endear and work hard for...

CONAN: Sure.

RICHARD: When times gets tough.

CONAN: When time gets tough that changes the equation.

RICHARD: Yes.

Prof. KING: We have entered into a new era of collecting with these virtual collections. There's a wonderful Web site called The Museum of Online Museums. And in it, you'll find such a wild, wonderful diversity of collections that more or less exist only on the Web. Things like...

RICHARD: Yeah.

Prof. KING: The Museum of Bad Album Covers and that sort of thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Really? There's a museum of bad album covers? I didn't....

Prof. KING: Yes, absolutely.

CONAN: Didn't know that.

Prof. KING: And Flickr is another wonderful Web site that contains virtual collections, that is, images of objects. But the objects really are not in any one location. Instead, they're there just as a series of images that anyone can contribute to, in some cases.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much and good luck with your new collection.

RICHARD: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Appreciate it. I wanted to get back to that idea though that you had - I've told this story on the air before. But I have a closet for the comic books which I always said were to help put my kids through college. And both of them are long out of college and I still have all the comic books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And therefore, I fit your definition of someone who would - what? Sell them? They're a monument, you write.

Prof. KING: For many people, they are. But again, there is this huge diversity of collectors and some are, more or less, like brokers. And they do hold on to things, more or less, with the idea that eventually they will capitalize on that value. Or - I just interviewed a collector who, at a certain point, had to sell some of his more valuable items just to put a down payment on a flat in London.

And so, in some cases, there are people who do use the collected object, more or less, just as a bank account. But, the - I would say the more lunatic edge of that fringe or the fringe is - consists of people who have a kind of psychic intensity that's invested in the object that makes it extremely difficult to part with.

CONAN: Extremely difficult to part with, and something that is very reassuring just to even look at. And as you say, the custodial part of it is a big part of it - putting them all in bags and backings and filing them all alphabetically and finding out that I've messed up the alphabet again.

Prof. KING: The long tradition of collecting that goes to the Renaissance is very closely aligned with the history of museums and that kind of idea of preserving things that might in that particular moment not be seen by the world as of great value, but which are well worth keeping.

CONAN: We're talking with William Davies King about his collections of what some might considered junk. So, what do you collect and what does it say about you and your relationship with the world and how you interact with it? We're talking about collecting. Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today with William Davies King about his book "Collections of Nothing". This hour, if you'd like to take a world tour with him through his food labels, from the Chinatown of La Choy to Heinz's Pittsburgh, you can read an excerpt from the book at our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. So, what does your collection do for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. Let's go to Willa(ph), Willa with us from Hot Springs in South Dakota.

WILLA (Caller): Hi. I could so relate to the collecting of spoons. My husband and I lost count after 500 spoons and salt and pepper and ketchup and all of those things you get from road travel. I couldn't throw these things out. Not only could I not throw things out, but then I would go out and look for things that were in the trash to bring them home.

And he would ask me, what is the end use? What are you going to use this for? And I could never find the answer. Then one day, I busted out crying. I said because it has potential, because it's like my sister and brother and I. We were thrown out. We were placed in foster care from two, three and four years old and bounced around to a lot of different homes.

And I think I, emotionally, psychologically, saw each thing that came into my life as something that had potential. You know, the waste wrapping from the toy couldn't be thrown out. It was almost as valuable as the toy because it had potential. It could be used for something else.

So, it's taken a lot of years, but I've finally realized it's OK to let go of some of these things. And my husband has helped me balance things out and not search through trash so much, and to move something on to the next person, who might really be able to use it, instead of me hoarding it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILLA: So, I could so understand that… (Laughing) …you can't throw things out.

CONAN: Willa, did you take them out of the little plastic wrapper they came in or keep them inside with the knife and the fork and the spoon and the napkin?

WILLA: Oh, I'd have to save everything.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

WILLA: Everything would have to be saved because there was - all the twist ties all the - oh, I still have a lot of stuff, but I've gotten calmer about it. And there are some things - what I'm trying to do now in this digital age is take a picture of it and save the picture, not the item. That's an interesting idea and it's helping to calm me down that I'm saving the idea of the item. And I'm not keeping so much clutter in my life. It's freeing to be getting rid of some of this stuff. But it is very hard, it's an everyday struggle, not to hold on.

CONAN: And Dave King - you write a lot about how a lot of this impulse goes back to childhood.

WILLA: Oh, God.

Prof. KING: So many collected objects connect you right back to some childhood image. And I love the image of spoons - a primary, nurturing sort of object that we of course - it's one of the first things we learn to manipulate in our lives.

WILLA: Ah.

Mr. KING: My collection of cereal boxes is sort of the other side of that, of course. You need a spoon to eat your cereal. Many people collect bottles and all kinds of toys. And so, that idea of - in the collecting, returning to a more comfortable and more nurtured time of your life, even if it wasn't there at least it's a fantasy of what was there.

CONAN: Hmmm. Willa, thanks very much and good luck.

WILLA: Thank you, thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. She does - she used a word - there is a distinction between hoarder and collector.

Prof. KING: Hoarding is a diagnosis. And it's in the diagnostic catalog of psychiatric problems. And it is an obsessive-compulsive behavior. There are many collectors who will kind of, with a chuckle, admit that there might be an aspect of hoarding to what they do. I must say I have to chuckle in that very same way about my own collecting. But it can be, of course, a very damaging and very unrewarding thing that is more or less just a playing out of pain.

CONAN: You open your book by describing the scene as you and your wife were breaking up and she has moved your junk, your stuff, your collections into the garage and as you look at them - and how much of a burden were they on your personal life?

Prof. KING: Well, at that time, it was an extraordinary burden just in terms of filling a Ryder truck and not even having enough room in the truck. So, they were something of a burden. In fact, that's probably the peak moment of their being a burden. It was just after that that I began to think that there was really something in this habit that I had been doing, something worth looking into. And when I began to realize that by looking - by thinking about the collected objects, I could begin to understand my life story better, and in fact, tell my life story. And so that was a moment when I turned the raw material into something productive.

CONAN: At one point, you wanted to turn it into art. You also - you mentioned presenting it in that gallery one time - in effect, you've turned it into a book.

Prof. KING: That's right. And there was a moment in the writing of the book when I joked that maybe after having written the book, I wouldn't have to do the collecting any longer, that it would replace the collection. And I'm still trying to figure out whether that's a joke or whether that's a possibility.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's talk with Adrien(ph), Adrien with us from Birmingham, Alabama.

ADRIEN (Caller): Yes. I was listening, I mean I've been listening and my ears just perked up when you were talking about labels and cereal boxes. And I was telling the lady when I called that I collect things like little notes that I find on the ground or pieces of glass or broken mirror is a big one, and like fortune cookie, you know, fortunes. And she asked me why I thought I did that and I think it may be me trying to get a connection with place. I moved a lot as a kid. I went to different schools, like, every year up until 12th grade. And it just - I don't know, I just feel more maybe connected to where I found them. I find them, like, I'm just walking around and just in life. And then I arrange them in my house, like little arrangements.

CONAN: Adrien, do you have a hard time explaining this to people?

ADRIEN: No. No. They love it. They come to my house and - I mean, my friends and stuff. They come and they see the little arrangements and they love looking at everything And actually now, I was sitting here on hold thinking about, oh, my gosh, people've started brining me stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KING: You and I are kindred spirits, I think. I love the fortune cookie things. The notion of the souvenir is pretty close to the idea - the collectible, a souvenir, something you hold on to just because it brings you to a memory. And for many people, the collected objects really are just souvenirs in profusion.

ADRIEN: Well, what if it - I mean - but, does that make sense that it's not my memory? That I'm picking up stuff from other people?

CONAN: Well, you were there...

Prof. KING: Connecting to a larger…

CONAN: Yeah. You were there. It's partly your memory, too.

Prof. KING: Or you're connecting to a cultural memory.

CONAN: Hmm.

Prof. KING: Yes. And I like the idea of your making arrangements of those. The word collection has the same root as the word collage, and so maybe you could find an artistic way to assemble these things and photograph them and share them.

ADRIEN: Right. Right. Maybe so, because you - listening to what you've done, that's a little inspiration to me.

CONAN: Adrien, thanks very much.

Prof. KING: Very good.

ADRIEN: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Hal in Oklahoma. Your collector guest may have acquired an absolutely irreplaceable treasure. Consumer products companies have been downsizing package sizes as covertly as they can, replacing a store's entire stock of a product at once to avoid shopper comparisons. Your guest may have a long longitudinal collection of many labels that would document the earlier package sizes quite nicely. For instance, I wonder if he's got coffee labels that document the progression of a three-pound can of coffee to as little as less than two pounds now.

Prof. KING: He sounds like one of my fellow academics who would turn this into anthropology. In my whole struggle to keep these things of no value, I refuse to date them, I've refused to record where I bought these things or the price or anything. So, as a database, it doesn't have great value. The one area that does have perhaps some value as a complete collection is the price look-ups, the little stickers you find on pieces of fruit.

CONAN: Uh huh.

Prof. KING: That whole phenomenon only goes back about 15 years. And so, I've certainly been collecting them all through that period and I must have about the entire history of the price look-up. Also, water labels - Arrowhead and, you know, all those plastic water bottles - and I have, I think about 500 of those.

CONAN: Let's talk with Alan(ph), Alan with us from Augusta, Georgia.

ALAN (Caller): I got to go. Hey. Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ALAN: I collect chairs and they're generally cane-bottom, antique chairs, things like that. And I just can't pass them up. I called it a chair fetish, personally. If I see a cane-bottom chair, it doesn't have to be in good condition, you know, I'll fix it up. I actually cane chairs. But right now I have barn full, probably about 50.

Prof. KING: Wonderful.

ALAN: My mother had about 75, you know, when I was a little kid, when they auctioned off everything. And I, you know, I just hang them in the wall in the barn, I don't even use them, you know? And I have no idea why. It's gotten to the point now where I'll go to an antique store, put - or buy a set of four, you know, chairs and, you know, I have to go and sneak back and pick them up and hide them in the barn because my wife would get so mad at me for buying these things. But like I said, I cannot pass one up.

CONAN: Chairs are - Dave King - chairs are one of your obsessions, too.

Prof. KING: Absolutely. Although what I collected were broken chairs and I liked that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KING: I liked that they had a kind of wounded look. A chair does have a human form almost. It has of course, legs, and many times arms, and...

ALAN: Right.

Prof. KING: It's got a back. And so it really is a little human and so maybe you're collection, your barn full of chairs, is sort of a little society that you can go to.

ALAN: (Laughing) Yeah, well and that's true. I spend a lot of time out there and, you know, I get them out, I look at them, I wipe them off, you know, and I work on them. And that's my world. So, maybe that's it. I don't know.

CONAN: A lot of people visit your barn?

ALAN: Actually, yeah. A lot of people do. (Laughing) They come by, you know, and they'll bring chairs to me because, of course, you know, they - I've kind of become known as the chair doctor, you know, if they have something to be fixed. You know, I have a lathe. I have all kinds of woodworking equipment.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

ALAN: This is not a profession by any means, you know, but I'll - I even picked up a set of Windsor-back chairs for a couple that I knew that had a dining room table that didn't - they had, like, outdoor furniture around it.

CONAN: I just want to interrupt to ask Dave King. Alan has a narrative. Alan has a story about how his collection - is he a hero collector?

Prof. KING: Absolutely. And he should put that story into words and absolutely - it would be a great monument for him.

CONAN: Alan, thanks very much. And you're...

ALAN: Well, thank you.

CONAN: You're a hero.

ALAN: (Laughing) Oh, thanks. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye, Alan. And we'd like to thank our guest as well. This has been our conversation with William Davies King - Dave King. His book is called "Collections of Nothing," and he's a professor of theater at the University of California at Santa Barbara, joined us from a studio there. Thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. KING: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And you're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Collections of Nothing'

'Collections Of Nothing' Book Cover

Then it began, the first real collection of my adult life. One day I started to save the labels of all the food products I consumed — cereal, soup, candy, beer. I did not keep the cans or jars, only the paper or cellophane or plastic labels. Boxes and cartons I cut or dismantled. Everything had to lie flat, like a leaf in a book. Initially I glued each item to a sheet of paper, most of it reclaimed from some other use. Eventually, I decided to keep the boxes unbound, flattened but not cut or glued, so that they could be reassembled if the need ever arose. ("This is a national emergency. We require a Triscuits box from 1986, a complete box! Citizens who can fulfill this demand should report to...") I did not keep duplicates, but the smallest variations — new graphics, a new incentive deal or coupon, even a change in the quality or color of the printing — seemed interesting enough for me to preserve. Initially I kept the labels in my file cabinet, but soon began to punch holes and place the leaves in a binder. That way I was creating a "book," and eventually I would have a lot of these books. ("Of making many books there is no end," Ecclesiastes 12:12) Eventually, though I could not have said it at the time, I would have this book.

The genesis of this collection coincided with the end of parental subsidy. For the first time all my purchases were being made with money I had earned, and I can see now that I wanted to retain some token of my independence and expenditure. The small markets in New Haven, the ones within bicycle range (nothing "super" in sight), were mostly Italian-owned, mom-and-pop, and each provided a range of goods imported from Italy alongside the General Foods and American Home Products of my childhood: Kraft, Sani-Flush, Sara Lee, Mennen, and Pepperidge Farms. Although the imported goods were often beyond my price range, I enjoyed occasional ventures into Il Migliore Pear Tomatoes, Posillippo Rigatoni, and La Famiglia Cribari jug wine. These were walks in the wider world, beyond where I had ever been, and the labels were my snapshots. But I also toured Battle Creek, Michigan, via my breakfast cereal, Pittsburgh via my ketchup, and the ersatz Chinatown of La Choy. Camay, my mother's preferred bar of soap for us all, suddenly had no more claim to my wet body than Palmolive, Lux, Vel, or Zest. I approached labels differently now, with heightened respect and limitless curiosity. Instead of tearing them open, I inserted a finger along the seam and listened for soft severance at the glue points, the music of another label come to dada.

I got carried away by this new project and began riffling through trash bins for nice labels (by then I was living in a flat above one of those mom-and-pop stores), but I soon stopped that and more or less restricted myself to the record of my life and my consumerism. The bliss of processing also led me initially to paste in other things, like matchbook covers, junk mail, and paperback book covers, that I soon stopped collecting. I did keep the labels of some nonfood items, but the core of the collection has always been eating and drinking. And, for a while, smoking. And pet food and cat litter. And medicines. And hygienic products, like shampoo and deodorant, toilet paper, and my girlfriend's tampons. Lightbulbs. Sponges. Nails. And ... it is clear to me now that the discipline of the collection was virtually nonexistent. Partly I was driven by a desire to see my binders fill, first one, then two, then more. Within a month I was already a prodigious collector. Other people came to know of this and would save particularly nice wrappers for me, a carton from their favorite brand of microbrew from Scranton or a Darkie toothpaste box from Hong Kong. I never refused such a gift. Had they instead dumped the package after guzzling or brushing, I might have fished it out of their trash in any case.

Still, the core of the collection could be described as tokens of all that I had personally touched as a consumer, what I refer to briefly as labels. Whole marketing divisions labor over the question of how to situate this product in the public eye: with symmetry, asymmetry, blood red, royal purple, shocking pink; "New," "Improved," logo or no logo, slogan or blurb; rosy-cheeked child or elderly black man; photo of the product, watercolor of the impression, cartoon of the concept; coupon, clip-and-save, how-to pic; a little sex, a little sport, a joke, a jinx, a leering chicken, a smiley heylookeeme nota bene "over here, sailor" eye-grab. Printing presses have stamped ever more smashing colors, ever more gaudy graphics, ever more penetrating phraseology, onto cardboard, cellophane, paper, and PET, liminally and superliminally and subliminally enhanced by photos, foil, stickers, glitter, holograms, "magic pictures," celebrity signatures, games, contests, Hollywood tie-ins, free stuff, LPs, CDs, DVDs, MP3s, recipes, and scratch-and-sniff scents. As a result of these efforts, a certain chemical and physical and social and economical reaction took place when my hunger or thirst or need to blow my nose met this product, and that led to my purchase. Since packages generally conceal the thing itself, that reaction usually takes place right there on the surface of the label, in that swirl of color and connotation, where desire fuses with seduction, message with massage, hunger with lust. My psyche has been there, alert and rapacious, and the upshot has been that my hand reached out. Political economy begins with that grab.

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