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shadows of echoes of memories of songs
There's still time to sell my soul
So, somebody already wrote a big part of one of the blog posts I was going to write. But rather than abandon it, I'm going to use theirs as a starting-point. Read theirs first, and then imagine me scrawling tiny essays in the margins with my scratchy pencil, illuminated by a library's fluorescent lights.

1. The things you own have a cost of ownership

Not only do you pay for the space consumed by the things you own, you pay for the time involved in mentally processing them: every time you move them around, every time you think about where they should be tidied away, every time you recall them when mentally cataloguing them, every time you remember the stories attached to them. And, if you're consciously trying to declutter, these thing are costing you time and energy every time you re-assess them and ask yourself "do I still need this?" It's exhausting. No, I don't have a neurological explanation for this (if I wanted to spin half-baked theories I'd cite other half-baked theories about how many people we're capable of having meaningful relationships with, and suggest that there's an analogous limit to the number of things we can meaningfully use/appreciate), but I know that the effort of constantly 'reading' all the symbols with which I surround myself is exhausting. I'm not saying that my mind wouldn't be full of lists and memories if I didn't own all this stuff. But at least the things that triggered the memories wouldn't need dusting.

2. You are carrying around the emotional weight of the things you don’t use.

Related to the above; there are lots of categories of things where I'm clinging to them as totems of a past image of my future/potential self: the version of me who carried on in academia and thus actually needed all those books on critical theory; the version of me who is now fluent in half a dozen languages. They needn't be major versions, but every minor revision takes up mental disk space: even the version of me who still bothers to spend two hours doing fancy nailvarnish. It is so hard to let go of those past future selves; but you can't travel in two directions at once. It's as if one of your feet is on the boat and the other is on the bank, and you can't commit to jumping on or jumping off. Even if you fall in, you're just deferring the decision; you end up treading water and have to choose whether to swim to the ship or swim to shore. The ship keeps moving out, and indecision may make you swim frantically back and forth as the alternatives get further apart from each other, or float lethargically on the surface; either way, if you don't decide while you still have the energy to execute the decision, I guess you drown.

3. You don’t learn your lessons on overspending, because you never face reality.

Less of an issue for me, as part of the reason why I have so much stuff is that I buy cheap stuff and acquire free stuff. I have to remind myself that it takes up time and space even if it's free: and time and space are money. But I certainly have wasted more money than I'd ever care to try to account for, buying more of things that I already have. Whether I've forgotten I bought them already, or lost the ones I bought already, or just want to be sure I don't run out (this sort of pre-emptive hoarding is the worst), things get stuffed into cupboards and end up becoming less than useless: I don't use them, other people can't use them, and at worst (e.g. with food) they become unusable by anybody.

4. You let yourself buy status symbols

I think that a lot of these 'status symbols' are actually a) souvenirs (the good side of the memories that things carry around with) and b) talismans invoking the ghosts of past future, as described above. It's not so much that I want to tell the world that I've read a lot (most people who are likely to see our houseful of books will already know enough about me to know that I read a lot; the rest will likely just make me feel embarrassed and awkward by asking questions like "Have you read them all?", "Are you a teacher?" and "So is reading your hobby then?") as that having books around me reminds me of things I've read.

5. You use objects as comfort

I don't think this is a bad thing in itself. (I think comfort-shopping is a lot like comfort-eating, but I daren't continue the analogy -- talking about food/diet/eating on the internet is just asking to be char-grilled alive). I buy clothes as comfort; it cheers me up to have a bright new top to wear on a grey Monday morning, or to have something distinctive to wear at a party. I buy cheap clothes from charity shops, and at the moment I have enough disposable income that I can afford to do this quite a lot. Yes, I could be saving the money instead, but the same goes for the money spent on beer, or books, or anything other than the bare essentials. But comfort-acquisition becomes a problem when you do it to excess (and that's not a hard and fast line, even for any one individual; unfortunately, sometimes the easiest way to find the location of the line is to cross it) -- when either the spending gets to the point where you no longer have the money for things you need more, or you end up with so much stuff that you can't cope. By this point, of course, the objects are in many senses no longer a comfort; but the ties of ownership are hard to break. It's harder to give something away than it is to acquire it.

With clothes, I get round this by buying cheap clothes from charity shops, wearing them a few times, and giving them back to charity shops: it's like paying to have an infinite library of clothes from which I can borrow to cheer myself up, and knowing that the library fees and fines all go to good causes. But I'm still aware that the act of shopping isn't good for me if I do it to excess, and that I could probably find better things to spend my money on than borrowing clothes.

6. You are weighed down

I suppose this one is true, but it doesn't really bother me in the sense that they seem to mean it: I don't want to live a nomadic lifestyle. I've moved house enough times to last me a lifetime, and yes, I am tired of ferrying all this stuff around with me; the most recent time we moved I 'cheated' and got the removal men to do the packing as well, because I knew that I couldn't cope with having to pack and unpack every book again. But if I get rid of things now I'd only be deluding myself if I tried to pretend that it was because then I'd be free to travel round the world with all my possessions in a backpack. In a sense, trying to live with no possessions at all would be just as much using possessions (or lack of them) to project a false self-image as buying lots of books in Japanese. Also, if I refused to acquire any possessions (without completely changing my lifestyle) I would always be relying on other people to give/lend me the things I needed, relying on other people to carry on owning stuff so that I don't have to; it's like the people who claim that they're "completely self-sufficient" when they're still using the infrastructures of society: they only have the luxury of being "self-sufficient" because other people are keeping society going to the extent that marauding hordes don't steal their yurt and kill them for food (and because they're getting paid by the Guardian to talk smugly about being self-sufficient...). One advantage of having so many possessions is that when someone near me needs something (to borrow or keep) I've often got it to hand (Owen jokes that I have one of every single thing in the world); I don't have much else to offer people, so having things to offer my friends is a service I can provide.

7. The more stuff you have the more blind you become to it.

I'd like to claim that it's fantastic having too much stuff, because every time you find things you've forgotten you had it's like a surprise present (from your past to your present, ha ha). But in practice the stuff usually just sits there, not being 'rediscovered', just being looked past: it becomes furniture, and it's not even furniture that you can sit on, or eat off.

Taking the 'surprise present' metaphor to its logical conclusion, I tried to convince my mum (who also has a lot of stuff) that we should each package up a box of the other's ornaments, bric-a-brac, etc; keep them for a year or so, gift-wrap them and give them back to each other as 'Christmas presents'. If we were delighted to receive them again then we should keep them; if they felt like unwanted gifts, then it was time get rid of them. ... She wasn't impressed by the idea.

8. If you are overspending, you will never see that money again.

Well, yeah. But the same is true of the money you spend on food and drink. And the money you give to charity. Worrying about the resale value of the stuff you buy is only pointful if you're planning to resell it. (Worrying about the lifecycle of that stuff in a wider sense is important, though. What happens when you don't want it any more: will someone else be able to use it? Will you be able to recycle it? Or will it just get thrown "away"?)

On the other hand, the idea of sunk costs can be useful when trying to get rid of stuff: if you've already bought something, you have already spent that money. If you can recoup some of the money by selling the thing, then that's a bonus; if you can't, and the thing is no longer benefiting you, keeping it will not recoup the money and in fact will just cost you more (see above). If you buy something for £10 and later give it away, you are not losing £10 when you give it away: you lost that when you bought it. If you buy something for £10 and feel obliged to pay to store it and lug it around with you for the rest of your life even when you don't want or need it, then by giving it away you are saving money.

9. Each object has a path before you bought it.

Yes, yes and yes. (This is one of the main reasons I very rarely buy anything new any more. There is enough stuff in the world.)

10. You like the idea of owning something more than the reality.

This is back to the question of storing self-image in stuff: our possessions are horcruxes where we hide the pieces of our soul. I like the idea of being the sort of person who owns a lot of books. Okay, I do also actually like owning lots of books: I like being able to pick something familiar off the shelf and turn to a page and re-read something I know well; I like being able to pick something relatively unfamiliar off the shelf and be surprised by how interesting it is (and if I find I'm not interested in it after all, I'm getting better at saying "I am never going to read this"). I like being able to lend books to friends, and I like the look and feel of a house full of books. It's warm, it's colourful, it reminds me of my parents' house, of happily losing myself in a book, of learning about myself and the world around me through books. Most of my life so far has been filtered through books. On the other hand, I probably do still own too many, and there are definitely individual books which I like the idea of owning more than I like the reality of reading them.


Part of the difficulty of getting rid of books, CDs, DVDs and other cultural consumables (they needn't be physically instantiated -- mp3s, emails, lists of bookmarks and so on all count as well, though they take up less physical space) is that letting them go is an implicit acknowledgement of mortality. It's an admission that you will not live forever, and that the inevitable corollary of this is that you will die without having read all the things you want to read. Perhaps I should try to turn this around and convince myself that by not keeping the books, I'm making the reading-list more open-ended (and thereby refusing to draw a line under my life); by keeping them, I'm merely making a papier-mache mausoleum of reading-lists around me, drawing the covers over my head.

And that's before I even get on to the deeper problem of believing we should be able to read everything, listen to everything, see everything -- the feeling that we'll die of cultural dehydration if we don't keep trying to drink from the information fire-hose (Charlie Brooker rants eloquently about this). I don't have time to write about that as well now. There are far too many books still to read.

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From: (Anonymous) Date: November 8th, 2009 11:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have seen The Seventh Seal.

And a few years ago I decided that if I start reading a book and ten pages in I think it's rubbish, I get rid of it and never even pick up anything by the same author ever again (bye-bye, Ken McLeod, I only bought it anyway because you saw me looking at the blurb one of those Heffers author's evening, I said 'it looks too much like Space Opera', you sounded offended and denied you'd ever written anything of the sort, and I was too embarrassed to put it back).

But, for a lot of things, I think the costs of ownership are outweighed by the return on discovery, when in thirty or forty years from now you you find, when looking for something else, something that reminds you of a time and a place and perhaps a person long gone; when the evening after a funeral you are able to go and find pictures of the person you laid to rest, or something they touched or gave that proves they knew you well.

So I don't advise 'decluttering' at all. It might be cheaper, and it might give you more space, but you'll never know what it it you're losing.

Too many people in this world lose the physical object to which memories are attached, whether through dramatic events like war or natural disaster or fire, or through divorce or theft; don't add to their number voluntarily. Hold on to the past, and to futures past.

And I'm going to read that surprise present. I haven't forgotten it, it still makes me smile when I think of it, and I've carried it through two moves so far (or at least, I haven't deliberately lost it, I think I know which box it's still in). I will read it before Christmas.


j4 From: j4 Date: November 9th, 2009 01:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
if I start reading a book and ten pages in I think it's rubbish, I get rid of it and never even pick up anything by the same author

Cripes, 10 pages is quite unforgiving. I go for the Nancy Pearl 'rule of 50'. (I read pretty quickly, though, so 50 pages isn't a huge commitment.)

So I don't advise 'decluttering' at all. It might be cheaper, and it might give you more space, but you'll never know what it it you're losing.

I take your point, but one of the things I'm losing by keeping too much stuff is mental peace, intellectual focus, the ability to do things now. The ability to think clearly, to find things, to get things done. A lot of the baggage I'm keeping does remind me of times past, but not in a helpful way: keeping four years of lecture notes in ring-bound notebooks feels more like a reminder of my ongoing failure to accept the fact that I'm not in academia any more, rather than a happy reminder of the fun I had studying; keeping a jumper which was given to me by a previous boyfriend and friend whom I've lost touch with, that's just silly -- I'd be better actually emailing him than hanging on to the jumper out of a sense of misplaced guilt and regret.

I agree that not losing touch with the past is important (maybe even the futures past, though I'm less certain that futures which never existed are worth hanging on to) but not to the extent that they impede your ability to engage with the present. I have to keep reminding myself that I am not personally responsible for archiving the universe; and even if I was, an archivist's role is at least partly about deciding what to throw away.

I will read it before Christmas.

So long as you promise to apply the 10-page rule! No sentimental exceptions. :-)
hatmandu From: hatmandu Date: November 9th, 2009 08:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for this post - it really strikes a chord with me at the moment. For the last couple of weeks I've been embarking (this is all embarking and little travelling, maybe) on a big clearout. So far I've filled 1.5 wheelie bins just with paper to recycle, emptied out from more than 90 plastic files - some work stuff, but mainly oddball projects conceived and abandoned over the years, research scribbles (unintelligible now), articles photocopied etc etc, all hoarded over years, in some cases as much as 25 years back to my early teens. Yikes. Despite all this, my study/home office still looks chaotic.

I've been reading stuff like Zen Habits (though he is rather too pure and minimalist for my taste), and trying to change the way I think from 'I'd better squirrel this [1997 bank statement/sheet of terms and conditions/idea for a novel/third copy of a poem I wrote as a teenager/etc] away just in case' to 'Do I really need this? Did I really even know I still had it?'.

It's bloody hard, as I'm a natural hoarder, and books tend to remain sacredly beyond all this, apart from occasional minor sloughings. But at least I'm trying to do this before we end up moving house, rather than letting events take over and things just getting shoved into a box and moved on yet again.

I like the point "S" (Shereshevskii?) makes about memories - but I'm hoping there's a balance. I'm trying to keep things that represent times and ideas and dreams past, without them turning into baggage, emotional sometimes, but mainly just baggage.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 9th, 2009 01:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
I had an epiphany about bank statements a few years ago; I realised that I was carrying around every bank statement I'd ever had (right back to the Natwest 'piggy bank' account I got when I was about 10) and yet I had never had occasion to look at an old bank statement. I decided to keep just the past two years, plus a final statement for accounts which had been closed (so I'd have the account number if necessary), and threw the remaining metre-high stack of paper in the recycling. Most of my banking is now online, and I have still never had occasion to look back at a paper statement except to find my account number (and occasionally to find a phone number for a bank, because their online info is so uniformly dreadful). It's probably a bit different if you're self-employed, though!

Newspaper articles were harder to get rid of, and it was mildly interesting to see what the 13-year-old me had cut out and kept... but (as I said in comment above) I am not the archivist of the 20th Century. If I was, I'd demand a better salary. I reckon the Independent probably have archives of everything interesting they published between 1992 and 1996, and I probably don't need to mirror those archives in a box marked "misc" in the bottom of a wardrobe somewhere near Loughborough.

Scribblings of ideas are much, much harder to get rid of. I suppose one day I will have to admit that I am not a novelist, a poet, a songwriter, an artist, or an academic, and keeping all this stuff is a bit like keeping a guitar I can't play and telling people that one day I'll be in a rock band. What I'd really like to do is put all the 'ideas' somewhere online so that someone else can use them -- a sort of creative commons jumble sale. I oscillate between "this stuff is crap, if I make it public I'll just get laughed at" and "I could turn this stuff into something good, I don't want to give away my brilliant idea"; but the latter is, I think, just dog-in-the-manger behaviour, and the manger in question is pretty mangy to start with.

The hardest thing is the nagging thought that I should be keeping all this stuff in case any future kids of mine might get as much fun out of looking through it as I got out of looking through my parents' old newspaper clippings & stuff. But a) I don't think there's actually any danger of me throwing all this stuff away, and b) maybe I should be consciously trying not to breed another generation of hoarders... (not that this is actively an issue yet or looking likely to be any time soon, so, meh).
hatmandu From: hatmandu Date: November 9th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't think there's a single thing you've written there that doesn't resonate with me! (Yeah, self-employed - I'm keeping the last 6 years' worth, and that's it. Er, until I remember I'm doing that in another 10 years' time.)
From: rmc28 Date: November 9th, 2009 02:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think I have 1.5 boxes of ring binders holding bank statements going back forever. I think you are right that I probably don't need to keep all of these. Thank you :)

Last weekend I spent several hours digging through two giant envelopes of Stuff from my schooldays and the first year thereafter (my university stuff has mostly been cleared out by now) and though it was quite fun to go through some of it, most of it is recycled now. I kept a few things, the things I thought I'd want to find in another 10-15 years.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 9th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, and, I followed your link to Zen Habits but the first article I saw was about how to declutter your life by selling/giving all your clutter to your friends. Unsurprisingly, they fail to address the issue of what happens if your friends start reading Zen Habits too... :-}
thegreenman From: thegreenman Date: November 9th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm with you all the way on this one.

I had a kind of epiphany over this issue about ten years ago and I've been striving (with more or less success) to destuff ever since.

The hardest to let go is always the books. I go through binge/purge cycles over books, but I'm a lot better than I used to be.

Increasingly I feel that stuff is not just a burden on me. It's a burden on the planet in terms of the oil burnt and pollution generated in order to produce it. This makes it easier a) Not to get stuff and b) to encourage people not to give me stuff.

Sadly my old mum has not learnt this important lesson. What could be a nice family home is groaning with stuff - My minimalist tendencies make it increasingly hard for me to go there. She can't accept that it's a problem despite the fact that cupboards are heaving with multiple copies of things she will never use and more comes in the post every day.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 10th, 2009 11:21 am (UTC) (Link)
The hardest to let go is always the books.

Ditto. I'm trying to be less possessive about them, though -- there are some I want to hang on to, but others where I reckon it's time someone else had a chance to read/own them. The books that have come in more recently are much easier to get rid of -- it's as if the longer you hang on to something, the more ownership accrues to it, until it ends up so heavy with ownership that you can't even lift it any more.

It's a burden on the planet in terms of the oil burnt and pollution generated in order to produce it.


This makes it easier a) Not to get stuff and b) to encourage people not to give me stuff.

Unfortunately I find it sometimes makes it harder to get rid of stuff -- I don't want things to go to waste, I don't want them to end up in landfill, so I end up hanging on to things for years trying to find the time/energy/opportunity to rehome them usefully, where I think most people would just bin them.

Sadly my old mum has not learnt this important lesson.

You have my sympathy. My mum has started trying to declutter, after decades of hoarding but also feeling miserable about the constant mess... (it sounds like your mum doesn't feel oppressed by her stuff, so maybe it isn't a problem for her -- only for you?). It helps that my dad has just taken early retirement, & he seems to be spending a lot of his spare time getting rid of stuff -- seeing them trying to get 50-odd years of stuff under control now makes me very glad that I've started the process sooner!

I think there is a strong generational difference in attitudes to stuff -- people who lived through times of scarcity got used to hoarding and it's hard to adjust to the fact that we're now in a time of massive surplus. (Obviously this is a massive overgeneralisation, but I think there's some truth in it, based on lots of anecdotal evidence -- if you don't think 'anecdotal evidence' is an oxymoron. ;-)
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