Stuff happens. Stuff, stuff and more stuff. Reluctant to acknowledge the crucial truth of this platitude? Look around your desk, my friend, or open your car’s trunk or glove compartment or (Warning! Please cover your head before performing this gesture!) open the hall closet in your home, whereupon the frantic tumble of objects might function as a wily persuader of my point of view.
Ideas are one thing, but things are quite another. We are overloaded with books about ideas: honor, courage, loyalty, politics, health-care reform, liberalism and conservatism, the fight against terrorism, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Things, however, often get overlooked when it comes to serious literature, perhaps because those very things - stuff, clutter, junk, name your euphemism - seem too trivial to require explication. Things are all around us, all the time; we are knee-deep in things. Why would we need philosophers to help us figure out things? Aren’t things self-explanatory?
Richard Todd and William Davies King, each in his own way, tackles those questions with style and relish and intellectual depth. Todd is the author of “The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity” (Riverhead) and King is the man responsible for “Collections of Nothing” (University of Chicago Press). They employ very different writing styles: Todd is contemplative, learned, large-souled, generous-hearted, a cultural critic of skill and nuance; King is nervous, paranoid, kooky, secretive, self-obsessed - rather like the title character in the TV series “Monk,” if that character were a theater professor (as is King) instead of a detective.
Yet both books take this moment in our history - with the United States sitting pretty at the very top of the world’s heap ‘o nations, with more material possessions being enjoyed by a greater percentage of its citizens than has been true for any other nation at any point in world history - and hold it up to a strong light.
King uses his fetish for collecting things as a way of exploring what things actually do in our lives, beyond obvious functions such as opening cans or clipping toenails. We collect things, he says, because things are never just things: “The widely shared impulse to collect things comes from a wound we feel deep inside this richest, most materialistic of all societies, and partly from a wound that many of us feel in our personal histories. Collecting may not be the most direct means of healing those wounds, but it serves well enough.”
King’s extraordinary book is a memoir served up on the backs of all the things he collects: rusty nails, old coffee tins, rocks, glass eyeballs, boxes, bottle caps, cereal boxes, the labels from cans of tuna and cat food. “Collecting, like art, is a way of coming to terms with the strangeness of the world.” His story starts out sounding odd and singular - who is this guy? - but by the end, you recognize yourself in a lot of what he does, and in a lot of what he keeps.
“The Thing Itself” includes some dazzling, beautifully crafted essays. Most start out gently, with a sort of loose, meandering, laid-back feel to them, but before you know it, you’re being whipped about in the churning white water of Todd’s serious thinking about things. What, he wonders, do we mean by authenticity? Or sincerity? How do objects confer status? Does something become more valuable just because it’s old?
Todd’s writing is gorgeous. And wise. Which is not to say I agree with everything he says. In fact, after reading the opening paragraph in an essay titled “Self and Selves,” I realized that I took issue with every sentence in the paragraph - every single one! I shook my head furiously at this: “Gestures, after all, are purely social things. Since one can’t make them to oneself, personality then depends on an audience.” Yes, one can make a gesture to oneself. There are all sorts of things we do for ourselves - in fact, I might argue that the most important gestures we make are the private ones, the ones no one else ever knows about.
But the measure of an essay’s worth isn’t whether or not you agree with it. The measure is what kind of hold it has on your imagination, how strenuously it makes you think, how much space it takes up in your mind after a single reading. By that calculation, “The Thing Itself” is a small masterpiece - and “small” only because of its brevity, not its scope.
Todd wrote his book, he says in the preface, because he had begun to sense “a scrim between me and the world.” He was sure that something more valid, more real, lurked beneath the Saran wrap coating of the everyday. King had the same conviction, and uses his impulse to surround himself with things as a way of exploring the nature of authenticity. It is time, both men believe, that we own up to the importance of the things we own - or do the things own us?
Julia Keller is the Chicago Tribune Cultural Critic.