Fighting the Collecting Urge

I was charmed by the bizarre mind-meld I felt when I read Sean O’Neal’s exquisite A.V. Club blog entry on the nature of collecting in the carbon-footprint world. Sean writes one of my favorite columns on the site, the weekly “Friday Buzzkills,” which details exactly how the cultural world has been going to hell that week. It’s unsurprising, then, that my similarly negative compatriot shares my fascination with the apocalypse. I also spent a fair amount of time in CCD and Mass reading the book of Revelation, wondering if the end of the world would come soon enough to jailbreak me from another hour of lectures on the Virgin Mary and various saints. In retrospect, I guess this was ironic, since the exact event that would have gotten me out of the religion classes I hated was the same one that probably would have actually made me believe in them.

I was also scared shitless in elementary school library class by a public-television series called Tomes and Talismans. It was designed to show kids how to use the various resources at a library, and apparently, the most efficacious way to do this was to incorporate a creepy post-apocalyptic plot. I spent every Library Wednesday cowering in the back of the room with my hands half-over my eyes.

(Incidentally, the online cult for this must have grown of late, because this was definitely NOT on YouTube when I looked for it six months ago. I can’t wait until my lunch break comes around and I can watch these.)

I’m so enthralled by the apocalypse that I read more than a couple of the Left Behind books, despite the fact that they were essentially Christian propaganda, and burned through The Road even though it scared the living crap out of me. The mixture of fear and fascination is what makes the idea all the more furiously wonderful in my mind. Most of the games I’ve played with myself, from childhood to the modern day, involve the products of my extremely overactive imagination. When I outgrew inventing elaborate personalities and life histories for my stuffed animals, I was usually mapping elaborate emotional contexts onto every signal and gesture of my high school crushes. (I once filled a 200+ page journal with writing about a single boy, who never showed the slightest bit of interest in me.) Looking back, I was most inclined to map and configure and dream when the object of my imagination was something that scared me, whether it was interacting with other people or getting a date. Now that I’ve managed to do both of those without falling completely on my face, though, the only fear left is one that can’t be faced. Unless, of course, the world ends.

Like Sean, I probably own way more entertainment items–books and DVDs, especially–than I really should. Some of my justification is sharing; a DVD set is a much easier tool to spread the gospel of The Wire to the uninitiated than a clump of AVI files. When I’m usually overcoming some inherent resistance to whatever it is I’m pressing on people, adding technological difficulties almost never helps.

At the end of the day, however, I’m guilty of the same Hornby quote. I identify myself, in part, by what I own, and I know that’s wrong. Sure, that rare “Float On” 7-inch or the Battlestar Galactica toaster that’s on its way to my house as I speak are wickedly awesome. (So awesome, in fact, that the toaster has sold out and I can no longer give you a direct link to it.) But they’re stuff, at the end of the day, and I’m not. It’s a hard question to ponder, when what you like is more a part of you than who you are. After all, aren’t humans built to respond to and integrate art? Isn’t that why we create? Or is that all just one grand marketing ploy?

And at the bottom of my collecting, there still remains the fear. If huge swaths of this country are destroyed, huge swaths of our art– even our mass-produced, 1-click-on-Amazon art– will go with it. How would I feel about living in a world with no copies of Ulysses, no remnants of “Double Nickels on the Dime,” no memory of Freaks & Geeks or Arrested Development? (Insert your own cultural touchstones here.) These things may just be things in the end, but they’ve made me laugh and cry and think.

Yes, I’m a consumer. I don’t go into debt for my things, and I can afford everything I buy, but I still consume beyond the essential needs, and that makes up my little contribution to the petroleum economy (I no longer own a car). It’s entirely possible that once the whole world composts and switches to Priuses, my lifestyle will be the next target. Or else the world will end, and I’ll be locked up in the house against the marauders, reading by whatever weak light my generator can make. Either way, my lifestyle will become untenable. But it isn’t right now.

And so I collect: against the better part of logic, against the environmental arguments, and against the end of time, my greatest unconquered fear.

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