Two seventh-grade boys, one of them my student, vie for possession of the long-handled magnet in shop class. True to their age and sex, both are loud, bossy and competitive. The magnet is intended for picking up screws, bolts and stray bits of sheet metal snipped from pencil boxes and pooper-scoopers. Part of their rivalry is turf. Both want to police, in however trivial a fashion, the vast concrete reaches of the shop class. Also, both are pack rats, indiscriminate collectors. Each has assembled a small museum of iron and steel shards. Neither is particularly dangerous but I frisk them to ensure they don’t remove broken drill bits and other scraps that might be mistaken for weapons elsewhere in the school. The rest they keep in their shop-class lockers and I weed out the riskier-looking stuff when they’re not around.
“Broken Blossoms,” the second story in Fred Chappell’s new collection, Ancestors and Others, begins like this:
“At first, brightly colored stones and oddly shaped leaves and bird nests and cicada husks, and perhaps it ought to end there, when one is seven or eight years old, attracted to the gathering of things by the eye’s joy and by a reverence for something which the natural world – so shadowy mysterious – has seemed to cast aside. Whatever it later turns into will be mere pleasure in collecting for the sake of collecting, in pigeonholing, in aligning things in rows, in piecing out categories.”
I could claim that passage as autobiography, even the bird nests. The narrator turns stamp collector at age 11, though I started a few years earlier. What Chappell describes is a rite of American boyhood (and perhaps girlhood – I don’t know) and something more: the human instinct for order. Over a collection, one reigns despotically without hurting a soul. Collectors, those who aren’t insane, are the benign dictators of their little kingdoms. Today, I’m sovereign only over my books but they constitute a working library rather than a true collection. Does a mechanic or carpenter “collect” tools? I’m only narrowly covetous and much of my reading, including Chappell’s book, is done from the public library’s collection – that word again.
On Wednesday, outside the library, I picked up a large, flawless, buttery yellow leaf fallen from a tulip tree. I pressed it in a book and when we returned home set it on my desk beside the computer. By the following morning, yellow was turning to brown, the edges curled and the once glossy surface had become dry and dull. I threw it away. That’s what collecting means today, knowing that beauty is evanescent and everything, even the fervently cherished, passes away.