Books are difficult to write. Long, uninterrupted projects are daunting to my hyper-mediated constitution. To push forward I always need to feel that a goal is imminent. So, I mentally separate my projects into series, or sets (with subsets), not unlike the Topps and Donruss baseball cards I once collected. I write books as a series of passages regularly punctuated with titles and illustrations. I am driven by a desire to collect these passages. The tidy nature of this arrangement, like finding a Norman Schwarzkopf single in a pack of 1991 Desert Storm Trading Cards to get one important step closer to completing my first series, has a soothing effect. Does anybody else work this way?
Kenneth Burke calls this tendency to apply a satisfying narrative arc to the movements in our life, what he would call a “terministic compulsion,” a desire to end or complete something. Ultimately, though, I get most excited when the series ruptures, where the collection resists completion.
A finished collection is not so much a disappointment as a negation; the lust of collecting is in the process of acquiring rather than the act of retaining a full set. Finished collections are usually relegated to places like three-ring binders, bedroom closets at you mom’s house, or series of poly-vinyl storage bags. Kant believed that the collection of raw material was creative in itself; this is what he calls the “manifold of sensation.” Just as we accept that composing a narrative is a creative act, we can accept that acquiring objects (often, but not always, physical) to be arranged in a certain manner is an action of creating art. In overcoming the challenges of collection, we feel a certain satisfaction. The graphic novelist Seth writes about the disappointment of internet shopping and eBay in his booklet 40 Cartoon Books of Interest, when he bemoans the fact that buying a computer allowed him to find, in an instant, the ten rare books he had tracked for years. The automation provided by an internet browser and a PayPal account deprived him of the craft that was involved in the creation of his collection, the skill it took to browse classified ads, wait on lines at rummage sales, and pick over bins in Salvation Army thrift store book lots. The act of collecting is certainly more important than the collection itself.
Walter Benjamin is a paradigmatic example of this idea. He was a scholar, a philosopher, a storyteller, but, above all else, a collector. His drive to collect, to collect books, to collect quotations, to collect information, is what led to the printed documents that have created a record of his work. He did not see himself as a writer or even a scholar in a contemporary academic sense. He was a collector, and, luckily, the physical manifestations of these collections are his essays and books. In his essay “Unpacking My Library,” he very directly discusses his personal collection drive. But his Arcades Project is perhaps one of the greatest examples of collecting as art. He actually tries to collect the city life of Paris within the pages of a book (or several notebooks) and, as with any sublime collection, it is a project that has never been completed, and, moreover, could never be completed, for that would suggest that an idea so vast as the very life of Paris could ultimately be contained.
Once a collection is complete, it is finished, and, therefore, its impetus is killed. The comics artist Ivan Brunetti, who is an avid collector of found and manufactured objects, describes collecting as a “process of gradually coming into focus.” He continues, “When I figure out what it’s about, I stop collecting.” Once the mystery is dispelled, the narrative is complete, and the creative process is finished. This applies to both artist and audience. A closed and reductive narrative offers a very shallow experience to the reader, an experience that completely shackles the reader’s creative capacity.
Benjamin’s contemporary and friend Georges Bataille might suggest that this collection drive is neither creative nor a drive at all. In his essay “The Notion of Expenditure,” he puts forth his theory of “unconditional expenditure,” in which he posits that the fundamental human drive is toward loss, not acquisition. Acquisition is an unwanted result of expenditure. He writes that there is a pleasure in expenditure, but it is mitigated by the capitalist insistence that loss be productive or useful. I would certainly agree, as I believe would Benjamin and Brunetti, that the expenditure of passion and resources involved in collecting is essential to its pleasure, and this is what I find so compelling about Bataille, in terms of my book writing process. But also necessary for this pleasure is a concept of production, a carrot. Inherent in this concept of collecting is the notion of a product, a final collection, whether it is an illusion or not. And if it is illusory, it is still a useful illusion.
The fractured narrative that The Arcades Project produces shows that value of purpose when expending resources. Eventually, a story is found, a new idea is acquired. A work of art is created that can be shared with an audience. As an artist, this is the ultimate pleasure I derive from my own collection drive, to gather raw materials and assemble them in such a way as to produce new ideas in my readers.
 The size and layout of the plates that begin each section of my novel The Complete Collection. While not consciously created as such, it certainly mimics the physicality (portrait and subtitle printed on a neat rectangle) of the trading cards, the Garbage Pail Kids and wooden-bordered 1987 Topps Baseball series, that once consumed me.