Tag: decluttering

A Keeper of Records: What’s Worth Saving?

It’s safe to say that book bloggers love lists: not only do we keep a thorough list of everything we read in a year, but we also leap to check out every new top 5/10/50/100 or thematic book list that’s posted so we can see how many of them we’ve read. And then, at the end of any year, most of us put together our own best-of lists, often for a number of categories.

When I was younger, though, I took the list-making to an extreme. As I was going back through boxes of mementos in America a few weeks ago, I found stacks of hand-written records I’d kept. Here’s a list of what I used to list:

  • every book I read
  • every movie I saw
  • dreams, recounted in detail
  • money I found on the ground
  • items I bought or sold on eBay
  • gifts given or received for birthdays and Christmas
  • transactions made through my mail-order music club
  • all my weekday outfits, with a special shorthand designating each item of clothing

Age 14 (1997-8) was the peak of my record-keeping, and the only year when I faithfully kept a diary. I cringe to look back at all this now. Most of the dreams are populated by my crushes of the time, names and faces that mean nothing to me now. And to think that I was so self-conscious and deluded to assume people at school might notice if I wore a shirt twice within a couple of weeks! My diary isn’t particularly illuminating from this distance, either; mostly it brings back how earnest and pious I was in my teens. It’s occasionally addressed in the second person, as if to an imaginary bosom friend who would know me as well as I knew myself.

What’s clear is that I was convinced that the minutiae of my life mattered. Between us, my mother and I had kept a huge cache of my schoolwork and craft projects from kindergarten right through graduate school. I was also a devoted collector – of stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, anything with puffins or llamas – so I obviously felt that physical objects had real importance, too. It’s a wonder I didn’t become an archivist or a museum curator.

Why did I save all this stuff in the first place? Even as a teen, was I imagining an illustrious career for myself and some future biographer who would gleefully mine my records and personal writings for clues to who I really was? I’m not sure whether to admire the confidence or deplore the presumption. We all want to believe we’re living lives of significance, but when I take a long view – if I never have a childif I never publish a book (though I think I will) … if human society does indeed collapse by 2050 (as some are predicting) – it’s hard to see what, if anything, will be preserved of my time on earth.

This is deeper than I usually get in a blog post, but these are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy me when I’m not just drifting along in life’s routines. My nieces’ and nephews’ generation may be the last to inhabit this planet if we don’t take drastic and immediate action to deal with the environmental crisis. Many are working for change (my husband, a new Town Councillor, recently voted for the successful motion to declare a climate emergency and commit Newbury to going carbon-neutral by 2030), but some remain ignorant that there is any kind of problem and so consume and dispose like there is (literally) no tomorrow.

My home is a comfortable bubble I hardly ever leave, but more and more I feel that I need to become part of larger movements: first to ensure the continuation of human and non-human existence; then to improve the quality of human life, especially for those who have contributed least to climate change but will suffer the most from it. I have no idea what form my participation should take, but I know that focusing on outside causes will mean less time obsessing about myself and my inconsequential problems.

That’s not to say I won’t listen to the angst that’s telling me I’m not living my life as fully as I should, but I know that working with others, in whatever way, to tackle global issues will combat the lack of purpose that’s been plaguing me for years.

Appreciation for my past can only help with bolstering a healthy self-image, so I’ve kept a small selection of all those records, and a larger batch of school essays and assignments. Even if this archive is only ever for me, I like being able to look back at the well-rounded student I was – I used to get perfect scores on calculus tests and chemistry lab reports! I could write entire papers in French! – and see the seeds of the sincere, meticulous book lover I still am. As Eve Schaub writes in Year of No Clutter, “I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.”

 

A selection of favorite mementos I discovered back in the States:

In high school I started making my way through the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movies. I’ve now seen 89 of them.

I kept a list of new vocabulary words encountered in novels, especially Victorian ones. Note trumpery: (noun) attractive articles of little value or use; (adjective) showy but worthless – how apt!

As a high school senior, I waded through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to write an essay that won me an honorable mention, a point of interest on my college applications. Though I find it formulaic now, it’s a precursor to a career partially devoted to writing about books.

I planned my every college paper via incredibly detailed outlines. (I’m far too lazy to do this for book reviews now!) Can you work out what these essays were about?

As a college sophomore I wrote weekly essays in what looks like pretty flawless French. This one was an imagined interview with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy about the autobiographical and religious influences on their fiction.

 

Are you a list keeper? Do you have a personal ‘archive’?

 

How do you balance a healthy self-regard with working for the good of the world?

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Four Recent Review Books: Ernaux, Nunez, Rubin & Scharer

Two nonfiction books: a frank account of an abortion; clutter-busting techniques.

Two novels: amusing intellectual fare featuring a big dog or the Parisian Surrealists.

 

Happening by Annie Ernaux (2000; English translation, 2019)

[Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie]

“I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled,” Ernaux writes. In 1963, when she was 23 and living in a student residence in Rouen, she realized she was pregnant. An appointment with a gynecologist set out the facts starkly: “Pregnancy certificate of: Mademoiselle Annie Duchesne. Date of delivery: 8 July, 1964. I saw summer, sunshine. I tore up the certificate.” Abortion was illegal in France at that time. Ernaux tried to take things into her own hands – “plunging a knitting needle into a womb weighed little next to ruining one’s career” – but couldn’t go through with it. Instead she went to the home of a middle-aged nurse she’d heard about…

This very short book (just 60-some pages) is told in a matter-of-fact style – apart from the climactic moment when her pregnancy ends: “It burst forth like a grenade, in a spray of water that splashed the door. I saw a baby doll dangling from my loins at the end of a reddish cord.” It’s such a garish image, almost cartoonish, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be horrified. Mostly, Ernaux reflects on memory and the reconstruction of events. I haven’t read many nonfiction accounts of abortion/miscarriage and for that reason found this interesting, but it was perhaps too brief and detached for me to be fully engaged.

My rating:


With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.

 

 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)

“Does something bad happen to the dog?” We animal lovers are wary when approaching a book about a pet. Nunez playfully anticipates that question as she has her unnamed female narrator reflect on her duty of care to her dead friend’s dog. The narrator is a writer and academic – like her late friend, a Bellovian womanizer who recently committed suicide, leaving behind two ex-wives, a widow, and Apollo the aging Great Dane. She addresses the friend directly as “you” for almost the whole book, which unfolds – in a similar style to Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – via quotations, aphorisms, and stories from literary history as well as mini-incidents from a life.

This won the 2018 National Book Award in the USA and is an unashamedly high-brow work whose intertextuality comes through in direct allusions to many classic works of autofiction (Coetzee, Knausgaard and Lessing) and/or doggy lit (Ackerley; Coetzee again – Disgrace). As Apollo starts to take up more physical, mental and emotional space in the narrator’s life, she waits for a miracle that will allow her to keep him despite an eviction notice and muses on lots of questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Why does animal suffering pain us so much (especially compared to human suffering)? I was impressed: it feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heart-warming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)

My rating:


With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.

 

 

Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin (2019)

What with all the debate over Marie Kondo’s clutter-reducing tactics, the timing is perfect for this practical guide to culling and organizing all the stuff that piles up around us at home and at work. Unlike the rest of Rubin’s self-help books, this is not a narrative but a set of tips – 150 of them! It’s not so much a book to read straight through as one to keep at your bedside and read a few pages to summon up motivation for the next tidying challenge.

Famously, Kondo advises one to ask whether an item sparks joy. Rubin’s central questions are more down-to-earth: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? With no index, the book is a bit difficult to navigate; you just have to flip through until you find what you want. The advice seems in something of a random order and can be slightly repetitive. But since this is really meant as a book of inspiration, I think it will be a useful jumping-off point for anyone trying to get on top of clutter. I plan to work through the closet checklist before I pass the book to my sister – who’s dealing with a basement full of stuff after she and her second husband merged their households. If I could add one page, it would be a flowchart of what to do with unwanted stuff that corresponds to the latest green recommendations.

My rating:


With thanks to Two Roads for the free copy for review.

 

 

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (2019)

This novel about Lee Miller’s relationship with Man Ray is in the same vein as The Paris Wife, Z, Loving Frank and Frieda: all of these have sought to rescue a historical woman from the shadow of a celebrated, charismatic male and tell her own fascinating life story. Scharer captures the bohemian atmosphere of 1929–30 Paris in elegant but accessible prose. Along with the central pair we meet others from the Dada group plus Jean Cocteau, and get a glimpse of Josephine Baker. The novel is nearly 100 pages too long, I think, such that my interest in the politics of the central relationship – Man becomes too possessive and Lee starts to act out, longing for freedom again – started to wane.

Miller was a photographer as well as a model and journalist, and this is an appropriately visual novel that’s interested in appearances, lighting and what gets preserved for posterity. It’s also fairly sexually explicit for literary fiction, sometimes unnecessarily so, so keep that in mind if it’s likely to bother you. I especially enjoyed the brief flashes of Lee at other points in her life: in London during the Blitz, photographing the aftermath of the war in Germany (there’s a famous image of her in Hitler’s bathtub), and hoping she’s more than just a washed-up alcoholic in the 1960s. It would be a boon to have a prior interest in or some knowledge of the Surrealists.

My rating:


With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Am I a (Book) Hoarder?

When I was a kid my parents and sister deemed me a pack rat, and over the years I’ve been a collector of many different things: stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, fossils, feathers, anything featuring puffins or llamas, and so on. At this point my only active collection is of books, but the others are all still in evidence in my old closet. I had a few good reasons to contemplate my belongings recently: first, I read a book about decluttering; then, on my recent trip back to the States, I helped my sister pack as she prepares to move out of her home of 12 years, and co-hosted a yard sale at my parents’ house to get rid of some of ye olde stuff.


Year of No Clutter, Eve O. Schaub

Schaub faces the possibility that she has inherited a family tendency to hoarding and tackles her house’s clutter-filled “Hell Room.” From one February to the next she enlisted her daughters’ help sorting things into piles and came up with a regular route of consignment shops, thrift stores, and libraries where she could drop off carloads of donations. Bigger projects included a photo book of 100 of her daughter’s artworks and a rag rug incorporating many beloved articles of clothing.

I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details of how this family organized and got rid of things because I like big tidying projects and putting everything in its rightful place, whether that be the recycling bin, a crate in the attic, or a charity bag. But what I most appreciated was how sensitive Schaub is to all the issues that can be tied up with our stuff, especially OCD, nostalgia, and indecision. “Although Marie Kondo disapproves, I’m not about to stop collecting my own life,” she writes. “It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.” 


Helping Out

My sister is very much of the Marie Kondo school of de-cluttering. She strives for minimalism in her décor, and is constantly going back through her sons’ clothes and toys to see what she can get rid of. All the same, 12 years of living in the same house has spelled a lot of accumulation. As she did her last-minute wedding preparations in early August, I was let loose on the packing and soon got all the easy stuff – like books and decorations – boxed up. But I quickly became overwhelmed by what remained, such as the boys’ toy room, DIY supplies, and stacks upon stacks of framed art and photographs plus photo albums.

Nephew #2 “helps” with packing.

As I was packing I couldn’t keep myself from peeking into the albums and tearfully marvelling that the whole life she built with her first husband – who died of brain cancer in January 2015 – is over. Death is so simple and final, right? Yet even these many months later I have a hard time getting my head around how the huge personality and web of connections that was my brother-in-law could be gone. And this even though I couldn’t be happier that my sister has found love again and gained two terrific step-kids.

When she and her husband move into their new-build home later in the year and get all this stuff back out of storage, she’s going to have quite the job sorting through everything and deciding what of her old life to keep on display, or keep at all. How to honor the years that are gone without having them intrude on the new family that she’s made?


Making It Personal

Mementoes, including travel souvenirs and special cards and letters I’ve received, are particularly hard for me to cull. There are four or five sizable boxes full of mementoes in my closet in the States, and another couple in our attic here. Getting rid of correspondence just feels wrong to me; I’ve probably rarely deleted a personal e-mail in the last 20 years. It’s like I need that physical proof of the relationships and events that have meant the most to me.

I’m much less sentimental when it comes to most other objects. The yard sale my mom and I had last weekend was a great opportunity to get rid of things that had been sitting around for a decade or more and were just never going to join me in the UK, including lamps, cushions, a clock, a CD player, a jewelry box, a formal dress, a shoe rack, and various figurines and framed prints. I only made $37, and a lot remained to be picked up the Salvation Army (including a whole box of VHS films I found at the bottom of the closet), but it was good to shed some stuff – and I at least earned enough to cover my book and maple syrup shopping on this trip!

Now, even though there are 25–30 (smallish) boxes of books remaining in that closet, I can definitively say that I’m not as much of a book hoarder as I once was – back in high school, say. On this trip I went back through all of the boxes to consolidate them and pulled out another 50+ books to give away or resell on a future visit. I looked back with fondness through three boxes of books from my childhood, but then promptly handed them over to my mom to share with my nephews or give away, as she chooses.

Back in the UK, I keep on top of my book collection by considering carefully every time I read a book whether I want to keep it: Is it a favorite? Will I read it again, refer to it or lend it to others? If not, I might give it away to a friend, check the resale prices on Amazon, WeBuyBooks or Ziffit, or donate it to a charity shop. This keeps the review copies from piling up, and means that my shelves are always full but generally not overfull.


Are you brutal or sentimental when it comes to books and other possessions? When’s the last time you had a big clear-out?