The Collector

By Matthew Cheney

I recently had to explain to an older friend of mine, someone who had not been in grade school during the mid-1980s in the United States, what I meant when I said something reminded me of the Garbage Pail Kids.

I explained that the Garbage Pail Kids were trading cards put out by Topps, the company that is more famous for baseball cards, and that they had briefly been controversial because they were gross and (supposedly) offensive and children like me had collected them with a passion bordering on mania. The cards depicted bizarre creatures such as Mushy Marsha and Wormy Shermy, characters that were both parodies of the Cabbage Patch Kids (dolls that were wildly popular) and, to my elementary-schooled mind, hilariously wonderful works of art in and of themselves.

After mentioning the Garbage Pail Kids to my friend, I wondered what had become of these things, and if anybody else remembered them. I could have checked with either of my parents to see if they knew what had become of the box with the hundreds of cards I'd collected, but I was curious what other people had to say about these things, and so instead of searching for the actual items, I searched the internet.

There were websites devoted to all things Garbage Pail, and even, apparently, a new series of cards. I began to look through the sites, but quickly stopped, because while seeing the images again provoked a sharp jolt of nostalgia, it wasn't anything I wanted to feel nostalgic about. All those hours spent trying to trade for the perfect card (whatever it was), all the tales of people who had seen cards from the legendary First Series, all that mental energy given over to categorizing, tabulating, calculating. I had done this? Me? Over these silly cards? Sure, I was ten years old, but still. . .

As I began to think about it, though, I realized how similar was my young passion for dumb gross-out cards to later passions and collections, how their emotional territory, while differently contoured, was essentially the same—the ache of ownership, the compulsion for completeness, the passion for possession.

The same impulses that governed the hours I spent seeking complete sets of various Garbage Pail Kids cards fueled the countless hours I have spent in bookstores in search of whatever treasure might lie around the next corner or on the next shelf. The anticipation and fantasy matters far more than the reality—the Holy Grail is all about the quest, not the finding, because once the Grail is found, it works its magic for a moment, then gets put on a shelf to gather dust, and a new Grail needs to take its place in the endless search.

We collect to fill holes. I have surrounded myself with books partly for pragmatic reasons—I do read them, or at least a lot of them—but also because acquiring books allows me to give concrete form to certain aspects of my personality. When the days grow solitary, I don't need to feel lonely, because I can read the words of thousands of people. When the world becomes bewildering and life slips into shades of meaninglessness, I can rescue myself with other worlds and ideas. When I grow tired of my own words, there are always millions of somebody else's waiting within arm's reach.

Of course, collecting is seldom a solitary act, and collectors of various things need to create networks of knowledge and trading, communities of obsession, cliques and cabals. Yet the collector is solitary, because a collection is controlled by that one person, the person who has built and shaped it, the person who wields power over it. Collecting is about control of what is in and what is out of the collection. Regardless of whether the collection is of priceless art or of rocks picked up off the street, it is for the collector a type of art in and of itself, because a collection selects from the infinite items of existence and filters them through the collector's sense of their value and connection. Culture becomes refracted through the collector's own values, and the collection is itself a new cultural product.

Collecting, then, is a way to feel a certain sense of power and control in a society where it's easy to feel powerless and out of control. It's a better kind of control than comes from simple acquisition, the getting of stuff, because collecting is a more ordered activity, the collector discriminating, possessing knowledge rather than blind desire.

Where and how does it all end up, though? Is a collector ever satiated? Perhaps the quest is not about items, but about posterity, or even immortality—we accumulate our collections, sifting and sorting them so that should we, by some catastrophe, disappear from the Earth tomorrow, the connections between every item in the collection would be in a perfect state, harmonizing and vibrating in just the right way so as to express our personality better than we did ourselves.

It's an amusing enough fantasy, but there's a disturbing quality to it, too, and the more I consider the nature and effects of collecting, the more deeply I respect people who have avoided its temptations and have lived their lives free from the need to buffer and buoy themselves with items, trinkets, objects, things, stuff.

But I'll leave further thoughts on collecting to psychologists, economists, and cultural theorists, because right now I need to go rearrange a bunch of books. . .


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus. Read more of his columns in our archives.