The Review: Collections of Nothing, William Davies King

The Review:  Collections of Nothing, William Davies KingCollections of Nothing
William Davies King
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0-226-43701-9

Reviewed by University of Toronto Bookstore Staff, James Bell

I’ve collected various things over the years: comic books, CDs, stamps, baseball cards.  The first two I would classify as useful items (I read every comic, listened to every CD), while the last two were extravagances, mere symbols of things that interested me (history, art, sport).  Comics and CDs took over much of my discretionary income for large periods of my life, but I wouldn’t say that they ever became obsessions–I rarely paid more than face value for a comic book, for example, and few of them made it into mylar protective bags.

William Davies King rarely paid a dime for the things he collected, because they were nothing anyone else wanted.  Cereal boxes, pieces of tooled metal, envelope liners, stickers from fruit, business cards–these items and many others, detritus from our consumer culture, make up the bulk of King’s collection of nothing (a Seinfeldesque nothing, meaning everything).  What he collected is only part of the story of Collections of Nothing, a fascinating and poignant memoir of an extraordinary–though populated by the extra ordinary and banal items that we touch every day without thought–life of a fifty-something professor, father, husband, and yes, collector.

“Collecting is a way of linking past, present, and future.  Objects for the past get collected in the present to preserve them for the future,” writes King, who takes the reader into his own past in an attempt to explain why he collects in the present, while remaining uncertain of his future, and the future of his collection.  As the book closes, he’s about to move to a new house, and must contemplate moving his collection, leading him to wonder if his children will want it–they say they do, they say they’ve begun to understand the collection, but he’s not sure. 

While King shares an acquisitiveness reminiscent of stories we’ve read about hoarders who fill their houses with newspapers, he’s more akin to Henry Darger, the janitor whose lifelong project/novel/art was revealed to the world only at the end of his life.  King can argue that his collections are art, that he has functioned as a curator, the subject being life in the second half of the twentieth century, specifically his own life and the goods, packaging, and discarded bits that surrounded him in a society inundated with stuff.  He has the academic credentials to back him up: Scholar of the House in his senior year at Yale, university professor and later Chair of his department, published author.  But apart from rare occasions, he hasn’t shown his collection to others, hasn’t made a career or a life out of his art, but in spite of it.  “Why, I wonder, do I create objects that I presume others won’t want to see?  Self-hatred shouts out in this,” he writes, “or guilt.  And it’s all rather beautiful.”  It’s not normal behaviour to have kept the labels from hundreds of different brands of bottled water, as King has, and he’s aware of it, but he also knows that “I’ve got something here, an entity, in these collections of nothing, though the entity cannot stand alone. . . I have to be there with it for it to be something other than an enigma.  My impulse to write about the collections responds to that need for me to be present, like a father, but also to my need to let them go, like a father.”  Writing this book, revealing his collections, is King’s way of coming to terms with the difficulties of his life–an abusive, later institutionalized sister, the loneliness of being sent away to school at thirteen, never to live with his family again, the breakdown of his marriage.  This is the real heart of the book, where King conveys how collections of nothing became something, and sometimes everything.

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The Review: Portobello, Ruth Rendell

By Ruth RendellThe Review:  Portobello, Ruth Rendell
ISBN: 978-1-4000-2550-3
Random House

Reviewed by University of  Toronto Press Staff, Andrea-Jo Wilson

Lacking the menace a casual mystery reader would associate with the genre, Ruth Rendell’s latest novel, Portobello,  nonetheless builds a formidable atmosphere of suspense, as the lives of a few are impacted by the seemingly innocuous discovery of a small sum of money found lying around London’s busy Portobello Road.

Preferring the whydunit to the whodunit, Rendell relies on the uncertainties of human behavior and not a masked villain to provide the necessary drama. “Like his mind,” she says of her main character, “his house in Chepstow Villas held many secret drawers and locked boxes.”

Famous for her Inspector Wexford mysteries set in the fictious small town of Kingsmarkham, Rendell’s talent has always been her eye for detail and finely drawn character studies. The author of over 40 novels, in addition to 11 more under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, Rendell is as famous in Britain for her obsessions (vegetarianism, punctuality) as she is here for her best selling novels.

The characters that inhabit Portobello are a believable mix of quirky and mundane, their sugar-free candy addictions, time management skills and interior decor  preferences keenly drawn, although none are as lucid as Rendell’s preferred foil, the city of London. Neither hero nor villain, Rendell’s London is prepared to take the long view and so bears the vagaries of human behavior and fate with an empathetic smile. “Some say the Pubs are to be renamed because no one knows who the Earl of Lonsdale was, still fewer the Prince Bonaparte, and those wanting change favour that cliché name the Slug and the Lettuce. But there are always rumours, and mostly they come to nothing.”

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