A Meditation on Compulsive Collecting
My apartment does not contain exquisite little Meissen porcelain figures, or walls full of J. M. W. Turner watercolors, or a locked case full of exotic anthropological artifacts from Papua New Guinea, or even a valuable stamp or coin collection. Instead, I’ve managed to surround myself with many well-loved objects of no intrinsic value: books, CDs, movies. This reflection was inspired by my decision, over the Labor Day weekend, finally to get rid of my personal VHS video library.
I suppose I should confess at the outset that my VCR has been non-functional for over a year now, and I was holding onto my collection only as a sort of historical relic while I bored my friends insensible with the question of whether to buy a new VCR or to replace the tapes with DVDs. It’s no secret how much superior a format the DVD is; when I last watched one of those tapes, a year ago, I was well aware that it was like gazing through the surface of a stagnant pond. And how often can you watch the same movie, anyway? Some, if not most, of you will wonder what the fuss is all about. A few, I hope, will recognize the time, energy, money, and love that go into a collecting compulsion. You might even be holding onto similar accumulations yourself.
How does a person come to own so many essentially valueless items—things which are, when you come down to it, only hunks of plastic? From about the mid-seventies till the early-eighties, one of the best parts of life in Manhattan was going to the movies. There were innumerable venues for revivals of classics as well as for international films. With the disappearance of these theatres, however, the VCR began to seem not only indispensible but also like one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, second only to air-conditioning. I immediately set out on a relentless and obsessive cassette-buying spree, wanting to surround myself with my own version of the Janus Film Festival, favorite movies from all phases of my life, even the horror movies that I used to watch as an adolescent on WPIX’s Chiller Theatre. My wife never understood why a grown man needed to own a copy of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. You might as well ask why I needed copies of Grand Illusion, Citizen Kane, or The Seven Samurai. My humble excuse is that I wanted them and it made me feel good to have them. But technology always evolves into something different; the VHS tape was soon surpassed by the DVD disc, necessitating a whole new round of buying and collecting. Maybe I’ve wised up, because I now rarely buy a DVD, suspecting that their obsolescence is right around the corner, too.
I won’t mention my LP records which still sit on shelves, in their ragged cardboard sleeves, scratchy and unplayed. I also won’t mention the stacks of audio cassettes which, at one time, seemed the height of technological sophistication, but now have gone the same route as those VHS tapes, most sounding muddy and warped. (I’m glad at least the eight-track tape phase passed me by.) I will acknowledge my shelves of CDs, though, which seem to keep growing, despite my best efforts at self control. People tell me I could load all those CDs onto an ipod, but that sounds like a time-consuming project about as interesting as rolling pennies into wrappers.
Books, however, are different. It is not likely, at least in my lifetime, that technology will overtake them, as they already represent the perfect blend of form and functionality. I own many, many books. Not the sort you find on the back page of the Times Book Review (although, with the economy what it is, a $22,000 first edition of Gone with the Wind might not be the worst investment), but books of no particular monetary value (many still have $1.00 penciled on the inside covers), which I’ve spent most of a lifetime gathering. For a variety of reasons, I remain fairly scrupulous about keeping these books from overflowing their allotted shelves. Early on, I spent years living in a studio apartment and learned the hard way that a finite amount of space will not accommodate an infinity of belongings. Fortunately, for my entire professional career at the library, I’ve worked on collection development for the General Research Division. Rarely has a job so neatly dovetailed with one’s passions. Every time I acquire a book for the library, not only is my own acquisitive lust gratified, but the book also gets to be stored here instead of at my apartment and will even serve the common good of future generations.
Several years ago, the New York Public Library received someone’s huge home library as a bequest. Along with several colleagues, I went to assess exactly what kind of collection we were dealing with. Stepping through the doorway of that apartment was like encountering some nightmare possibility of my own future self. Each wall was completely taken up with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves; each bookshelf was double and sometimes even triple shelved with books; the wooden floors were piled high with tottering columns of books that left only twisty little passageways to walk through; books filled the clothes closets, kitchen cabinets, and every other available bit of surface space. The atmosphere was disturbingly close, the air thick with dust. At one point, a neighbor came to the door and complained that the weight of these books had buckled the floors and made living underneath treacherous. I vowed at that point that—book lover or not--I would never let book buying overrun my common sense.
Why do we build personal libraries of books, music CDs, video cassettes, DVDs? For the same reason, I suspect, that we have public libraries--in order to capture our experiences, provide continuity with the past, and discover clues about the future. What we read, listen to, and watch helps to define who we are, an imprint as personal as DNA. I confess that, when people invite me to their homes, I instantly start to make deductions about their characters from what I find—or don’t find—on their shelves. I think libraries of whatever sort are just another way of proclaiming, “I exist.”