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The Anti-Social Life of Paper

August 6, 2011

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August 6, 2011

Several years ago a Malcolm Gladwell piece in The New Yorker reviewed a book to do with how we use and store printed paper documents, and what struck me most profoundly is how we stack and store paper. Like a squirrel burying nuts and returning for them later, we seem to have a memory based upon proximity, tempered by remembering color, texture, and size, so we can find papers in the appropriate stack. I’ve used the topic in my my writing about libraries, and I’m sure I still have the original article here, torn out of the magazine, and I think I’ve downloaded and printed it a couple of times since, when I couldn’t find my clipping.


On my desk, the middens grows to the point of sliding apart and forming new sub-stacks. I have many flat surfaces in my office, indeed, in my house, that have papers on them. And for some time now, I have been fighting a slow but important battle to overcome both the amount of paper and my habit of piling it higher and deeper.

No, I don’t have a Ph.D, but a master’s degree and an all-but thesis second masters are enough to have fed my paper habit for years. Now I am being the postmodern writer and deconstructing my stacks, files, shelves, and boxes, where I may have stashed important papers. Odd boxes on the floor contain papers I was going to go through soon, to sort out then toss. Didn’t happen; they just got buried by the next box. I don’t know what might be in some of the boxes, but having had a couple of near-misses with identity theft, I know better than to just toss the boxes unopened, even though I know that what I don’t know is gone I won’t miss. What I won’t miss someone else might find very useful.

Generational Habits Die Hard


This image came from the blog of Liz Qualman. Great looking site.
My parents were both readers. Newspapers, books, magazines, letters, and more, so after moving away from the region I regularly received manila envelopes stuffed with clippings from the home papers and periodicals they knew (correctly!) would interest me. Magazines slipped in, occasional books, cassettes, VCR tapes and CDs all came my way. And now that my parents are gone, these notes from the past seemed more precious. From the perspective of years it’s clear that if I don’t need them, these thoughtful packages are also clutter.

After all of this, it is necessary to say I’m not a hoarder. No intervention is required here, you can see lots and lots of dusty floor tile and carpet in my house, my books are all on shelves, you can sit in my chairs and move around furniture and through rooms without moving things or turning sideways (well, all except the sun room, where I stash my eBay stuff, but that room is meant for that). You can even get in and out of both sides of my pickup in my garage without having to scoot in through a mess of stacked stuff along the sides. But there are boxes and shelves and stacks in my office and a few other areas around the house that need addressing. I sometimes feel like until I slay those earlier ideas of things to research or write about, of letters and cards from decades ago friends long forgotten, it’s difficult to move forward. I was somehow trying to capture snippets of myself and others but I’ve lost myself in the evidence.

The heart of my problem has been that I’ve done for myself what my parents used to do, set aside things that are interesting that I might use later. But where they had to make selections and then package and mail the most pertinent pieces, anything that caught my eye for a moment could go into a stack or on a shelf. These in the past were paper landmines, slithering stacks that tripped me up or made it difficult to work because I had to keep moving them. So I put them in boxes, the ones I need to sort.

Paper is only one part of the clutter problem here. Inherited furniture and interesting stuff from a couple of my east coast great aunts I met when I was a young adult is part of it. These objects took the place of the family members I never met and wished to know more about. I gathered up what I could and brought it back here to examine, and to use to remind me of the stories and conversations I had with these interesting elderly women. I have given away and sold pieces of furniture and objects that I simply can’t use and things that I don’t collect. I tell myself myself that my home is not a museum.

My children might be interested in some of these pieces of furniture when they have homes of their own, but they won’t need all of this stuff, and like so many of us who have worked on estates of parents and other relatives, I know I don’t want to leave a mess for my kids. My parents both had houses full of stuff; Dad’s house was tiny but packed and he had a shed across the road with more. My mom had a large house full of a lifetime of stuff, yet she collected things (carvings) later on just so she could give each grandchild a collection. Ironically, the bits that we really love are not artificial collections but are the things that we know they both valued from many years from work and travel. The things they chose when they were poor, and the tangible products of their hobbies, the things they spent their time doing.

The tyranny of paper and stuff


This came from a Colorado architect firm, Trendir Modern House Designs. I consider a house this neat and clean to be pure fantasy or OCD.
My parents lived through the Great Depression. I’ve heard it all, thought it all. And now I look at the drifts of papers, the mass of notes to my future self and recognize a cacophony of ideas smothering interesting objects from my family. Smothering the lines of the house. I have realized that a passing idea alone doesn’t make a good story, but if it comes my way several times, then I should make a note and file it where I can find it and use it when the time is right. Don’t let it drift into a stack and be forgotten until it tumbles back to the top again. (This photo is of a house I will never visit, but it’s nice to think that someone was able to pick up all of their paper before the photo was taken.)

There is a good outcome to this: I’ve identified things that I have no interest in keeping that collectors have bought from me on eBay. I’ve given away pieces when people expressed an interest, and I’ve donated a lot. The garment that my mother made of interesting cloth that I wouldn’t consider wearing is turned into beautiful cushion covers for a window seat. I am using and reducing what is here. One of these days I’ll have the house I visualize.

The kids may be stuck getting rid of books. I’ve thinned, but there are always going to be a lot of books.

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