The Joys Of Owning Too Much Stuff

Forget what people want to tell you – you can never have too many books, records or anything else.

“If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
John Waters

You will probably be unsurprised to hear that we own a lot of things. A whole hoard of things, you might say. I have more books than I will ever actually read – with everything else that we have to do in life, I think it’s reasonably fair to say that there probably won’t be time left to work my way through what I have and what I continue to buy, and that’s not even taking a pessimistic ‘not long left’ approach to life. I also have a frankly ludicrous amount of movies and music across various formats – and this is after a massive clearout of VHS tapes a few years back when I moved house and realised that you really can’t take it with you – at least not without renting an even bigger storage unit than the expensive one I already have. By most regular definitions, I own too much stuff – books, films, records, assorted novelty items, furniture that Mrs R hates with an absolute vengeance, various electronic items and cables that might come in useful one day and God knows what else. That I live with someone who is not all that different from me – with seemingly endless boxes of shoes, clothes, work-related things that were a bargain on eBay and her own sprawling collection of books – and given the additional pleasure that we live in a fairly cramped space, you can imagine the problem.

In fact, I’m going to guess that most of you really can imagine the problem because if you are reading this site, chances are that you have a similar personality. Yes, there are all the Communist and spiritualist arguments against material possessions and consumerism but frankly, I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a lifetime of accumulated interests clogging up their home. We live in this odd world where owning things and keeping things is seen as weird and unhealthy – how many TV shows and magazine articles are there aiming at ‘decluttering’, often admittedly taking the most extreme hoarders as examples but nevertheless seeking to reinforce the idea that keeping books after you’ve read them is odd, holding onto possessions that are not traditional antiques is the sign of a damaged individual, that not wanting to live in some painfully artificial showroom is just not normal?

“Look”, they’ll marvel, “this person still has a pile of old magazines” as if holding onto reading matter was proof positive of mental illness. I realise that for them, magazines are inherently disposable – because that’s all they’ve ever experienced in their own shallow and culturally empty lives. But magazines exist as a cultural record of a time and place, and often offer the only contemporary record of that culture. There’s a reason why we digitise newspaper archives – they are a record of the past. Similarly, if people hadn’t hoarded copies of old TV shows, then many would be lost forever. There is good reason to hold on to these apparently throwaway things and the cultural archives of the world would be a lot emptier had everyone simply pinned their reading matter as soon as they’d read it.

Those people you see on property shows or other terrible programmes where cameras are invited into their homes that seem devoid of books beyond a handful of celebrity biographies or, worse still, old hardback books bought as decorative items like you’ll see in pubs that are trying too hard to be ‘cosy’, or the people who gleefully dump all their physical possessions in favour of the virtual… what is wrong with them? Why are they so shamelessly, proudly uncultured? Do they really think that their carefully placed and fashionably upcycled old furniture is all that matters? How desperately empty their lives must be.

Equally sadly, people will often gut their collections when a new partner enters their life. Perhaps this new other half will disapprove of a home full of musty books and obscure records, perhaps they will object to boxes of vintage smut or equally off-mainstream entertainment. I’ve seen people disposing of decades worth of material to appease a new partner who then doesn’t even stick around. Remember – your interests are part of who you are and what made you the person that they supposedly fell in love with – if they want you to change it, ask yourself what else they’ll want to change about you – and why.

We’re perhaps finally seeing an acknowledgement that a throwaway culture is a negative one. TV shows like The Repair Shop reveal the genuine sentimental attachments that people form towards things that, according to some, should’ve been junked years before. We can’t put a value on the worth of any one item to any one person – as the saying goes, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. There seems to be a slow realisation that decluttering coaches are probably monsters, demanding that people throw away beloved things because some total stranger sees no value in them. This is no exaggeration – remember those shows where people were effectively browbeaten into tearfully chucking things into a skip because it doing so would somehow improve their lives?

Of course, no one lives forever and the skip is all too often where a person’s possessions end up after they die. Disinterested or embarrassed family members will dump entire lifetimes of collecting – or even a lifetime’s work, as happened to Cliff Twemlow, whose master recordings and archive was thrown away after he died. The more outré a collection, the more likely it is to happen – how much rare and valuable porn has been thrown out by embarrassed families, I wonder? It’s probably a good idea for people to make some sort of plan for their collections – I know that some pass their stuff onto archives while still alive and that’s very magnanimous. Everyone else should perhaps include its disposal as part of their will – or at the very least make it clear to family members that this stuff has value and make suggestions of people, collectors or archives that might appreciate it being donated (or, if your family are especially money-hungry, tell them where and how to sell it).

Equally, no one lives in infinite space and so the problems of where to put things will eventually hit anyone who can’t walk past a second-hand bookshop without at least peering eagerly at the window display. A few years ago, we invested in a wall of shelving for books. It barely touched the sides of what we own, of course, and so this weekend we are spending more money than is sensible on another wall of custom-built shelving – floor to ceiling – to turn this room into some sort of vast library. We justify this because the cost of rented storage is just not sustainable in these financially difficult times – after a few months, we’ll be a lot better off financially and just as importantly, we’ll have access to everything currently locked away on the other side of London.

That’s assuming, of course, that it all fits. If it doesn’t… well, we’ll figure something out. Collectors always do.


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  1. I wonder how the decluttering experts on TV and in print would react if confronted by someone who obsessively collected everything they attached their names to. An archive of decluttering knowledge. Would they encourage that person to get rid of it? If so, are they freely admitting that their output has absolutely no value to anyone?
    Why trust someone who has no emotional stake in the things they themselves produce?

  2. We really do live in a world where we’re expected to behave in a certain way to fit in, like not collecting stuff (I say that as I sit here surrounded by DVD’s and Blu-ray’s). According to Amazon I should be embarressed about buying Tinto Brass’ The Key, at least that’s what I assume from the fact that when I checked the orders page on the app it was ‘hidden to protect my privacy’.

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