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Downsizing in the Age of Stuff

I’m culling the collection. It’s making me a little nuts. Carol and I are moving from a house with 4600 livable square feet (plus an oversized garage) to 3100 square feet plus a garage that will fit two biggish cars if you smear Vaseline all over them. (There will be another 350 square feet of livable space once our contractor installs an air conditioner in the small garage.) We’re in our sixties now. We’re trying to simplify and streamline, which sounds easier than it is, simply because a good deal of it is learning how to let go of Stuff.

The 21st Century may well be remembered as the beginning of the Age of Stuff. We’ve always had a certain amount of Stuff, and one of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution is, of course, allowing poorer and poorer people to have more and more Stuff. When I was a young teen, I thought I was as rich as Croesus (quick, without googling him: Who was Croesus?) simply because I had a typewriter, a telescope, a pair of walkie talkies, and a VOM. Now I look around the house, and I ask myself how many standard Croesuses the collection represents.


China has a lot to do with the Age of Stuff, as does eBay. Stuff that used to go out on the curb can now be bought by people who really really want just that precise model of waffle iron. (What used to be considered trash I often think of as “parts units.”) I found a NOS hair curler on eBay precisely like one that Carol had owned and loved in the 80s. Better engineering means that the Stuff we have is often better Stuff, and careful people like Carol and myself have an instinct for being careful with things, making them last longer and longer. We still have the blender we got as a wedding present in 1976, and we still use it several times a week. 70s cars may have been crappy. 70s blenders rock.

So we’re keeping the blender. But what about all the rest of it? That is pretty much the current challenge. The Big Truck will be loading up some time late November or early December. We’ve already taken several carloads of Stuff to Goodwill, and given the best of it to our friend Diedre for her indoor flea market table. And damn if the house doesn’t look the least bit emptier.

The worst of it is about books. The last time I cataloged our library, we had about 2500 books. We did an initial purge last year and got it down to about 2200. I let go of Charles Platt’s Garbage World, and had the fleeting insight that it was symbolic. I gave away Lupoff’s Sacred Locomotive Flies even though it’s my favorite SF book to make fun of. I got rid of stuff that was badly written or simply a bummer, like Malzberg’s wretched Beyond Apollo. If I ever discover an aching desire for bad SF, well, there’s always eBay.

But really, it’s getting tough. The “why the hell do I still have this?”purge is over. Now I find myself on my rolling library ladder, staring at the spines of books that, if not excellent, actually have some value, or at least served me well at one time.

One time, sure. Often a very long time ago. I realize that I’ve kept a lot of them for sentimental reasons, like my father’s 1940 drafting textbook. My college career was a very mixed bag, haunted by a lot of third-shelf thinkers who didn’t know how to teach and didn’t like being challenged. Still, there were some gems in all that dirt: I’ve kept some books because they were given to my by Dr. Rachel Romano, who took a special interest in my talents as a writer at a time when most of my knucklehead profs were telling me deadpan that I should apply to law school. I look at some and ask myself, “Did I ever actually read this?” Dr. Romano died in 1985. I don’t think I will do her any disrespect by putting her books in someone else’s hands. She was a wonderful influence in my life, and the influence is what matters. The books are simply mementos. I don’t know who originally said this, but I’ve been saying it a lot to myself recently:

Not all of your past belongs in your future.

It’s true. Very true.

I’ve got about 75 books in the purge pile right now. A few were easy pitches, being slim and having somehow escaped my notice for 40+ years, like Philip Slater’s silly-ass tantrum The Pursuit of Loneliness. Many were good books on science and tech that are now simply obsolete, irrespective of their excellence, like Pickering’s 1001 Questions Answered about Astronomy, and the 1990 first edition of Microsoft Computer Dictionary. I had several books on film photography that clearly won’t be helpful anymore. Some are now sad, like Enterprise by Jerry Gray, which is all about how the Space Shuttle was going to make space travel easy and cheap and open up the road to the rest of the Solar System. A mere handful are books that I literally don’t remember either buying or reading, nor, in truth, how they came to me at all.

Some purges reflect my changing interests. I used to read a lot about ghosts and the paranormal, but I suspect I’ve long since read everything useful on the subject, and many of those books are now on the pile. (I made good use of some of that weirdness while writing Ten Gentle Opportunities.) I’m culling my theology shelves, which is harder. I got rid of my books on theodicy, and all but one of Peter Kreeft’s books, he being a crypto-Calvinist pretending to be Catholic and saying stupid and damaging things like “There are no good (that is, innocent) people.” Sorry, Peter. “Good” does not mean “innocent,” and you disqualify yourself as a thinker for saying so. I’ve finally come to a good place in my (often agonized) quest for sane religion, so many of the inspirational books I used as steppingstones are now unnecessary or redundant.

The toughest calls of all are those books that contain some but not always a lot of useful material. How much usefulness is enough? I have a lot of books about the brain and personality, many of them now pushing a quarter century old. Some of those books are timeless. Many aren’t. But in quite a few cases, the clarity of the writing in the intro portions makes me want to keep them as quick brushups, should I need one. Hard call. Intros matter. I’ve made my career writing them.

And so on. We’ve done this before, and in fact, we’ve done it every time we’ve moved. This is our seventh house. You’d think it would get to be second nature after awhile. However, this particular purge is especially difficult, since it’s the first time we’ve gone from a larger house to a smaller one. We designed this house to have a lot of storage, because we knew damned well how Stuff multiples over the years. The new house, well, it doesn’t have all the crannies and under-the-stairs places (no stairs!) and this means we’re going to have to be extra careful deciding what survives and what goes to Goodwill. The hardest part of packing the house has nothing to do with boxes, but in fact is all about how much of the past will still have a role in our future. And if you think that’s easy, just try it sometime.


  1. Rick H says:

    Been there. Am there.

    We’ve moved several times, and the last two moves resulted in a semi-trailer full of stuff – both time …. even though we did what I thought was a good purge of stuff.

    The last place had a humongous garage (a double and a deep single, with space between both. The current house has a small two-car garage.

    The biggest pile of stuff was all of my wife’s scrapbooking supplies (literally a closet full of just paper). All has been safely moved in, and a big accomplishment this last week was getting one of the cars (Highlander)*inside* the garage, with room enough to walk around it.

    Good luck with the move. The packing process is endless. I did almost all of it (wife’s health problems), and just when I thought I got a room done, I would turn around and there would be more to pack.

    It is true about moving: the first 90% of the move takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% takes the other 90%.

    Good luck !!

  2. Tom Roderick says:

    Jeff, This really hit home for me.

    “…but in fact is all about how much of the past will still have a role in our future. And if you think that’s easy, just try it sometime.”

    This is exactly where I have been since my wife passed three years ago. I need to think like this. Thanks for the tip.

  3. Erbo says:

    “But in quite a few cases, the clarity of the writing in the intro portions makes me want to keep them as quick brushups, should I need one.”

    Scan the intros and keep ’em on a hard drive for later reference? This seems like one of those circumstances where the bits matter more than the atoms. Atoms are tough to haul around. Bits less so…that moving truck could represent a hell of a lot of bandwidth.

  4. Kevin says:

    Coincidentally I ran across this comic strip today, and found it quite relevant to your situation: Good luck with with the purge!

  5. Richard Shealer says:

    We had a fire in 2008 that destroyed my entire office area. Those old Borland. Microsoft, OS/2 and dBase compiler boxes just added to the heat.

    We moved into a much smaller house and I did not replace a lot of what I lost. I wish I can say that I don’t miss the various items, but generally it was a good thing to let go of things I don’t really have any use for other than nostalgia.

    I have found a few digital versions of computer documents from my past such as TRS-80 manuals and 1980’s pre-IBM compatible Canon computers. I managed to get a hold of digital versions of most of the Infocom games.

    I still have a lot of paper back books that escaped damage. Those PC Tech Journals, MS Systems Journals, Byte, and PC magazines are long gone. I had intended to frame some of the Byte covers but never did.

    When I moved to Ohio this year most of my technical books more than 10 years old hit the trash. Pre-2005 2-3″ thick volumes for training on Microsoft MSCE, Novell CNE and Cisco CCNA are useless and gone.

    But I have truly resisted the urge to buy cool old stuff on eBay. I really don’t have time to spend on the past. Too many things going forward, but I do miss the junk. Back when I truly knew a lot about computers.

  6. TRX says:

    When I finish the rebuilding and remodeling, we’ll be moving into a *much* smaller house next year. From four bedrooms, family room, and huge pantry to a small one-bedroom place.

    My wife is a hoarder of “should get help” proportions. I can’t change her behavior by force, but I’m not putting up with it any more.

    We’re probably going to wind up paying double utilities and taxes so she can keep her “stuff” in the old house, because it’s NOT coming into the new one. I’ve already given up on any ideas of renting or selling the house.

  7. Vince says:

    It’s always lights a spark in me when someone notable in one area unexpectedly mentions someone who’s notable in an unrelated area. Which Kreeft book did you decide to keep? There was a time when I was very much into his writings, but I outgrew his clever style (they just don’t give me the same kicks as before).

    1. Angels and Demons. Good resource material for future fantasy novels, and in fact for the completion of my quirky contemporary novel Old Catholics, which includes a pair of incompetent demons named Bump and Grind who live in Mrs. Przybysz’s catch basin.

  8. Rich Rostrom says:

    Some comments on the Age of Stuff.

    Part of it is that over the last generation Americans have greatly expanded their personal space. Lots of new construction added, while houses that were occupied by large extended families are now occupied by small families, couples, or even singles. Apartments, much the same. This is reflected in demography – mature urban neighborhoods and inner suburbs have been losing population for quite a while now. (This is a separate phenomenon from the depopulation by destruction of slum neighborhoods.)

    There’s a natural corollary to Parkinson’s Law: Stuff expands to fill the space available.

    However, American stuff goes beyond that. An acquaintance remarled once that for every new shopping mall, just down the road there is a new U-Store-It where people put all the stuff they buy at the mall.

    As to books: only 2,500? I have at least 4,000 in a 700 sq ft apartment. (Most of them in two walls of built-in shelves.) I did run a purge several years ago, and eliminated about 1,000 SF paperbacks. I agree about old tech references.

  9. TRX says:

    Rent-a-closets are huge. When I was a kid there were maybe three in town, mostly used by people at the local USAF base. Now there are probably thirty.

    A few towns over, there’s a former shopping mall that has been converted into a massive self-storage complex. And your old utility bills, out-of-fashion clothing, and childrens’ school craft projects can reside there in air-conditioned comfort.

    A 125-bay storage unit went up near a friend’s house. According to his wife, who knew one of the principals, all the bays were already rented by the time the building was finished. And they have a waiting list for new customers.

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