On Collections

I come from generations of collectors. Not hoarders. Just collectors of certain things that have been carefully curated over the years. Books are the most common. Stationary and office supplies, that's another one. I share that love of pens and pencils and have let it spill further than my ancestors, into typewriters and other retrotech. My grandfather had National Geographics from the time he was 14, and they accumulated through all the years of his life until my grandmother, many years after his death, when she had to leave her house, the magazines descended again from the warm dry fossilization of the attic to the inglorious boxes my aunt stashed in the corner of the garage, saving them for me apparently, though those who don't collect books tend not to realize how they can easily be destroyed. Not a few were lost. I shipped them 1000 miles once I had a house to put them in, and they weighed down my shelves stacked double deep for an ungodliy amount of linear feet, years 1928 to whenever.

When I fell into the abyss — noonday demon, mid-life shit, call it what you want — collecting was symptom and salve. It was clearly a symptom of madness that I amassed some dozens of typewriters in a short span of time. That I fixed many up, that I spent hours tinkering and typing, all further signs of the madcap depths. I sold many off, accumulated some more. They went from being soothing and enjoyable to being a burden, immense hunks of steel that stop bullets but cluttered the garage, secret shame of my period of disquiet and upheaval. But on the other side, they were indispensible. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and imprinted much on the page that needed to go on the page.

There's a joke in my extended family that my grandmother only gave away things that were valuable. She kept all the junk but the one of kind baseball cards, all gone. The good furniture, someone acquired that in the move towards the end of her life. The Lionel trains that would have been worth something today, those were given away to some random person. Uncharitably one might think she simply was swindled by those who better knew the value of things. More charitably, foreknowledge is never assured. Who would have done better in that situation? Books were kept. For the lower middle class, those books meant something. A promise of upward mobility perhaps? A reminder of learnedness in the face of economic mediocrity? It was the other stuff that was swept away. And would it have been all that valuable today? Fantasy perhaps.

It wouldn't be her fault anyway. It's a family trait, according to family lore at least. There were mines and mountains out in the west. Now these are all worthless. Someone either lost them in the Depression or didn't pay the taxes. Whatever the cause, the documents are pretty. So fancy and a reminder of a family whose wealth has all been lost.

I've collected pens and cameras and saxophones and books, always the books. In professoring, that voracious accumulation can be an asset, a ravenous capacity for absorbing more information. I suppose that's an appeal of a Ph.D.. One can know a canon and a body of knowledge.

But knowledge is portable. And things, the typewriters and instruments and books — so many books — they take space and impose weight.

And it comes time to move. A downsizing move, where the cost of living is so high where we're headed that the prospect of having more than a broom closet for an office is a daily fantasy. The typewriters will have to go. The National Geographics, which my grandfather saved — for what reason I have no idea — have already gone. And the books, so many books.

My grandfather lived his entire life in the same few miles of a town. He lived most of his life in the same house, from childhood till death, in a row house which was sold only when my grandmother moved down the street, so she could be right next door to my aunt and uncle and cousins, and then moved with them when they finally saw the neighborhood so far deteriorated and blighted by crime and poverty that they had no choice but to leave. I can feel the stairs of that house, the front ones with all their splinters which got me when I was little. I took my then future wife there, a short ride by subway, from our dorm, for holidays. I was there after my grandfather's funeral. And it was that same block where I took my months old daughter to meet her great-grandmother.

I don't know why my grandfather kept those National Geographics — the man who lived his whole life in on the same block of the same street within a mile of where he was born. I don't think he meant them to be passed on. Someone just asked me, do I want them. And then it became a thing, that they would be saved for me, until I could take them and had somewhere to put them. We moved here and amidst all the space for my books, the library of bookshelves that I had fantasized since childhood, there they finally found a place.

It's a beautiful library. It was, but now we have to move.

A former professor friend spent most of his life amassing his scholarly library. It included the normal scholarly books, the rare scholarly books, the special and rare editions of old scholarly books. It was an amazing collection, so much so that to fit it (mostly) into his office he had to put the shelves back to back and so close together that he could only slide sideways into the spaces. Just enough room for a small statured man to reach in and grab what was needed. And when he retired, he was at a loss, contemplating the fact that he might sell them all. He wrestled with this, selling his collection which had meant so much to him in the amassing. He therapied about it. And he got bids from book buyers. They lowballed him and he thought, maybe I'll keep it. But then, inevitably, it was such that keeping was not really an option.

I heard a news story — I'll pretend it was on NPR, though I suspect it could have been Vice or something smuttier (Slate?). Wherever it was, it was a story about bespoke porn, about how people would pay for very specific kinds of custom videos and how this sort of video making was a lucrative business. One of the weirdest requests was from a guy who ordered videos of adult stars destroying his postage stamp collection. This collection was worth tens of thousands of dollars, but he was so ashamed of it, he needed it defiled and destroyed. He paid to have videos of the destruction of his collection, album by album, and was grateful when they were all gone.

I don't think I want pornstars to pee on my typewriters. Or my books. Or a video of it.

I read somewhere else that collecting gives us comfort in times of stress. It can give the illusion of control or of plenty when either are in short supply. That was certainly something of the typewriters. It was an emblem of writing, a romantization of one particular problem and block that I was having at the time. It was nostalgic, and relatively cheap, and so it was easy to find that accumulation comforting.

There's a joke about typewriters. They reproduce when you leave them alone. Leave one typewriter in a car and before you know it there are three in your trunk. It is unfair to call it a joke. It is in fact the true story of how typewriters reproduce. For a while there I was going around buying and reparing typewriters locally. Since then and in more recent years, people knew I'm the guy to bring things to, and so typewriters came to me, unbidden. I have acquired at least 20 in the past few years, none of them purchased. Just donations because I can take care of them, like cats or some otherwise unwanted feral animal. Normally one would say that that is an indication of lack of value, but I think in most cases these were owners like me, just hoping to find a better home for something that once had to someone in their family; they want it to go to someone who, they hope, might appreciate that value.

I feel that obligation that things go to “good homes,” to people who might appreciate them. I could just give everything away, but I really can't, because of this tug of obligation. Am I obligated to get these objects to someone who cares? Is that why they can't just go back into the donation spinner? Do we owe something to the objects we purchase? How fucked up is that?

I have to downsize. There won't be room for all the books. I know there won't. Every time I move books now I feel it in my back. I used to haul those books from place to place. And now I'm no longer that scholar and the books—– so many books — I think maybe my kids will appreciate them. But I know they have their own interest and will hvae their own stuff to explore. That abundance, that need for abundance, is it because my parents didn't grow up with a lot? They instilled in me that collection fetish, that ache borne of deprivation.

There's comfort in knowing that these things are there, that I could have them if I want. I haven't read some of those books in 20 years. Some will never get opened again, and yet they're there, as a symbol of the vast learning and accumulation of knowledge. My kids will never want them. I'm fooling myself. Some books would see me die, silent witnesses still unread.

Will I be me without the books, without the machines, without the accumulation of words?

My parents passed on my toys— the Star Wars, the Legoes — all things “worth” “something” in the vacuous uncertainty of value. They've sat in the closet for decades. I let my kids play with them, which they enjoyed, but then they went back in the closet. And they need to be sold. I don't know what use I have for them aside from occasional nostalgia. I have boxes (more limited) of the things my kids wanted to save.

In my computer browser, I have over 100 tabs open.

I finally went through all my old academic papers and photocopies and assorted detritus. Most of it at least. And most of it went to the trash.

Conventional wisdom is that collecting is a form of control, a channeling of interest that borders on obsession, an outlet, usually safe, for finding safety and comfrort in objects, the satisfaction of seeing things in order. Maybe not everyone's collecting is pathological.

Collecting is a blow against death. It's a futile attempt to assure oneself that the past is not just forgotten or tossed aside, an even more vain effort to leave something behind, set against the known truth that being tossed aside and of no consequence is precisely the only outcome that awaits any of us in the fullness of time. Collecting is yet another response to anticipating oblivion.

I wondered, when I was in the darkets places many years ago, whether there would be a time when I didn't need something to hold onto, when I could be free of that anticipation and fear. I thought to myself that maybe that's how I would know. When I could let go of the typewriters or the spinning thoughts or the books — so many books — then I would be cured, I thought. I would know I was better when I didn't need that crutch to make me feel better about not being remembered, about doing nothing of consequence, about being a blip barely registering in the passage of the world.

I wonder why my grandfather saved those national geographics. Did he enjoy them? When he walked every day to the corner store, the same store, for decades, in the same neighborhood, did he find them transporting? Was that window into the rest of the world hat did it? Or was it the mark of education and culture and knowing things? Did he keep them just because they felt like the kind of thing one would keep? They seemed to have gone straight into the attic and never left, 1940 onward. I think there was 1950s and 1960s dust on them. They hadn't been touched since then. Why did they sit there? What was the point of their waiting in the dark all those years? They are obsolete. All of the content, glorious digital copies of the images, is available. You can buy it all, have it all, and not need shelves or storage or transportation to haul it all around.

They saved them for me but no one else wanted them. I have to remind myself that they sat in the garage because there was no where else to go.

I find myself loving home, sitting out back and writing at the table there, and not wanting to go anywhere. I understand that part of my grandfather.

Why do we cling to the collections of others? Why would I assume that my kids would ever care what I collected and saved, except as an oddity to be remarked on in passing and then tossed? I don't want to leave them with a burden of having to go through my trash or sort through my stuff.

My professor colleague, now retired, saw the box I kept in my office. “Future Trash” it said. And in it went all the papers that I knew students would never come collect, all the little ephemera of professorial life that are valuable for a period of a year but no further.

What are words but the collection of ideas? I collect those too.

My books — so many books — are they just future trash? So but for the grace of god go...