Thursday, December 31, 2009

Collections of Nothing

I had to spend the period between Christmas and the last days of 2009 on business in New York. I allowed myself one outing: Strand's bookstore, where I had been once before and which I remembered fondly. How disappointing! The philosophy and the German sections were especially bad.

Still, I "found" two books worthy of buying. One was a Penguin selection of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, called Some Anatomies of Melancholy.[1] The cover contains the quote: "These unhappy men are born to misery, past all hope of recovery, incurably sick, the longer they live the worse they are, and death alone must ease them." The men (and women) thus described are those afflicted with melancholy, of course. But he might as well have meant collectors.

In any case, the second book I bought was William Davies King's Collections of Nothing (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008). I read the Burton selections on the train home to Boston and the King memoir in the hotel the very night I bought the book. It's a description of the author's life through the lens of his affliction of having to collect things that have no value at all, such as "44 varieties of tuna-fish labels, 276 varieties of water-bottle labels, candy wrappers, bacon boxes, cigar bands, luggage tags, envelope liners, cereal boxes and more" valuable things such as books, for instance. Fortunately for me, perhaps, I collect far less: Notes on matters that interest me (obsessively), books (too many), pencils (fewer), and watches (very few). As King notes, there "are collectors who do not amass, in a physical sense ..." But all collectors, he thinks, "occupy a conceptual space that is the enlarged but displaced sense of self. Every day in every way our collections will get better and better, even if the world does suck rocks" (29). Indeed!

And this is how it must have appeared to Robert Burton when he collected the materials for his Anatomy of Melancholy. One look at the "Causes of Melancholy" should suffice to prove this. He lists general and particular causes, where the general causes are either natural or supernatural, and the supernatural either from God, his angels, or "by God's permission from the devil and his ministers" (9). The natural causes are more boring: parents, food, and such things. But the "Digression of the Nature of Spirits. Bad Angels or Devils, and how they Cause Melancholy" is more interesting. All of this is meticulously documented by references to ancient and modern authors. To say that the Anatomy is a commonplace book is too generic. It is a record of a true collection of nothing, if only because an evil like melancholy—if an evil it is—is truly an absence of being.

King's "nothings," by contrast, are truly things. I am not sure whether collections represent a "displaced sense of self" or a "misplaced sense of self," but I doubt that they are either. What is our self, if not a collection—Hume would have said 'bundle"—of representations of objects?

But however that may be, there are quite a few interesting reviews of the book on the "Internets," like this one or that one, which even has a link to his collages of books.

I will not, and I mean "not," start a collection of books on collecting. This is my New Year's resolution!


1. I bought it, even though I already own the 1927 edition of the The Anatomy of Melancholy: "Now for the first time with the Latin completely given in translation and embodied in an all-English text. Ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith. New York: Tudor Publishing Company." The first edition was published in 1621. I occasionally read in it, just as I occasionally re-read some of the essays of Montaigne.

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