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"You don't need this old math work," said my eighth grade geography teacher, paging through my loose-leaf notebook while I watched resentfully. It was 1967, the math work was no more than a couple of months old, and she was ahead of her time. She was an early prototype of that strange, new species littering the media these days: the declutterer.

People like her - they say "professional organizer", I say bully - seem to be everywhere. Their sudden visibility is probably due, at least in part, to the success of the US TV series Hoarders, in which mentally disordered people are forced to confront their pathological addiction to keeping and/or acquiring so much stuff that their houses are impassable, often hazardous. Of course, one person's pathological hoarder is another's more-or-less normal slob, packrat, serious collector, or disorganized procrastinator. Still, Newsweek's study of kids who are stuck with the clean-up after their hoarder parents die is decidedly sad.

But much of what I'm reading seems aimed at perfectly normal people who are being targeted with all the zealotry of an early riser insisting that late sleepers and insomniacs are lazy, immoral slugs who need to be reformed.

Some samples. LifeHacker profiles a book to help you estimate how much your clutter is costing you. The latest middle-class fear is that schools' obsession with art work will turn children into hoarders. The New York Times profiles a professional declutterer who has so little sympathy for attachment to stuff that she tosses out her children's party favors after 24 hours. At least she admits she's neurotic, and is just happy she's made it profitable to the tune of $150 an hour (well, Manhattan prices).

But take this comment from LifeHacker:

For example, look in your bedroom and consider the cost of unworn clothes and shoes, unread books, unworn jewelry, or unused makeup.

And this, from the Newsweek piece:

While he's thrown out, recycled, and donated years' worth of clothing, costume jewelry, and obvious trash, he's also kept a lot--including an envelope of clothing tags from items [his mother] bought him in 1972, hundreds of vinyl records, and an outdated tape recorder with corroded batteries leaking out the back.

OK, with her on the corroded batteries. (What does she mean, outdated? If it still functions for its intended purpose it's just old.) Little less sure about the clothing tags, which might evoke memories. But unread books? Unless you're talking 436 copies of The DaVinci Code, unread books aren't clutter. Unread books are mental food. They are promises of unknown worlds on a rainy day when the electricity goes bang. They are cultural heritage. Ditto vinyl records. Not all books and LPs are equally valuable, of course, but they should be presumed innocent until proven to be copies of Jeffrey Archer novels. Books are not shoeboxes marked "Pieces of string - too small to save".

Leaving aside my natural defensiveness at the suggestion that thousands of books, CDs, DVDs, and vinyl LPs are "clutter", it strikes me that one reason for this trend is that there is a generational shift taking place. Anyone born before about 1970 grew up knowing that the things they liked might become unavailable at any time. TV shows were broadcast once, books and records went out of print, and the sweater that sold out while you were saving up for it didn't reappear later on eBay. If you had any intellectual or artistic aspirations, building your own library was practically a necessity.

My generation also grew up making and fixing things: we have tools. (A couple of years ago I asked a pair of 20-somethings for a soldering iron; they stared as if I'd asked for a manual typewriter.) Plus, in the process of rebelling against our parents' largely cautious and thrifty lifestyles, Baby Boomers were the first to really exploit consumer credit. Put it together: endemic belief that the availability of any particular item was only temporary, unprecedented array of goods to choose from, extraordinary access to funding. The result: stuff.

To today's economically stressed-out younger generation, raised on reruns and computer storage, the physical manifestations of intellectual property must seem peculiarly unnecessary. Why bother when you can just go online and click a button? One of my 50-something writer friends loves this new world; he gives away or sells books as soon as he's read them, and buys them back used from Amazon or Alibris if he needs to consult them again. Except for the "buying it used" part, this is a business model the copyright industries ought to love, because you can keep selling the same thing over and over again to the same people. Essentially, it's rental, which means it may eventually be an even better business than changing the media format every decade or two so that people have to buy new copies. When 3D printers really get going, I imagine there will be people arguing that you really don't need to keep furniture around - just print it when you need it. Then the truly modern home environment will be just a bare floor and walls. If you want to live like that, fine, but on behalf of my home libraries, I say: ick.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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