People are funny about the things they collect. The point seems to be just to have them, not get any practical use out of them.
My Uncle Victor had a collection of dozens of baseball caps, each advertising a different company or ball team or region of the country. As far as I knew, he only ever wore one or two of them. The rest were either on a hat tree or stacked on the shelf of his closet.
My sister Judy has about as many cookie jars as my uncle had baseball caps, and guess what? She doesn't have cookies in a single one of them. And I know of someone with a slightly larger budget who has an extensive collection of Waterford crystal. Certainly she would never actually drink out of them. That would be — well, I don't know what it would be exactly, but she just wouldn't do it.
When I was a kid, I remember my friends and I had collections of things you could actually get some use of. Marble collections could be employed in games. Comic book collections could be read on rainy weekend days when nobody was outside playing. Even baseball cards could be traded endlessly until just the perfect collection was achieved.
I guess I tried to achieve that utility as an adult. I had a collection of belt buckles and bolo ties for a while during my Western period. But, perhaps emulating my uncle, I only ever wore one or two of the buckles, and I was always embarrassed to walk around with a bolo tie.
About the time I had finally acquired the perfect collection of conventional neckties, I decided the world as we know it wouldn't end if I stopped wearing the hateful things to work, so I put the ties in the back of the closet and never even looked at them again.
At one time I had (still do, I guess, in some dark corner of the house) a beautiful collection of harmonicas, in every key. But the only one I liked was the one ion the key of G, so I never played the other ones, and I eventually grew out of my guitar-and-around-the-neck-harmonica-holder folksinger stage.
I finally settled on cookbooks. I took a baking class at Ivy Tech shortly after I moved to Fort Wayne and, once I got into the kitchen discovered I loved it there. What better collection for someone who likes to cook? I amassed a fine collection of nearly 300 cookbooks, many of the featuring regional specialties. I made it a point whenever vising a new area of the country to look for cookbooks put out as fund raisers by local groups (the Junior Leagues put out very good ones).
You probably won't be surprised at what happened. About the time I achieved near perfection with my collection, the internet happened. Who is going t spend hours looking through a dozen recipe books for a specific recipe when you can get thousands and thousands on Google and pick the best one or mix and match them based on what ingredients you have on hand? Go ahead and Google "bean soup recipes," and you will get 3,560,000 responses. Narrow it down to "black bean soup recipes," and you will get only 1,790,00 recipes.
That doesn't mean I never cracked open the books ever again, that they just languished on the shelf gathering dust. I would pluck one out periodically and slowly read through every recipe, just for fun, no immediate plans to cook. Whenever I get a chance to browse through other people's books, cookbooks are the first thing I look for. And I always check out the bargain section of the bookstore (on those rare occasions I still go there), because that's where all non-bestselling cookbooks go to die. Reading through recipes is like porn for food lovers and amateur cooks.
I've never given much thought to why people collect things, but other people sure have. It's the need to control our environment. It's a way to add meaning to our empty lives. It's something to fill our time with.
According to psychologist Dr Rebecca Spelman, our fascination with collecting objects starts early in childhood (Aha! Knew it.) So a comfort blanket or cuddly toy teaches us that it is possible to have an emotional bond with something lifeless and inert. And so a positive relationship with the idea of holding on to and amassing material things is formed:
As we get older this might then progress to collecting shells from the beach, figurines of a particular kind of animal or TV character, or objects that share a colour. We take ownership of things that no longer just provide comfort – collecting them becomes pleasurable in itself.
Dr Spelman says: “The value of these objects is irrelevant. Of course, there are people who collect things that they know will increase in value, and see every new addition to their collection as part of a financial investment. They're doing this almost professionally.
“But for most of us, being a collector has nothing to do with financial gain – it is an emotionally driven action, often with people collecting objects they connect positively and emotionally with at particular times in their lives.
“By amassing similar items with the same theme, to which there is a pleasurable association, can bring an emotion from the past very much into the present.”
Naturally, Sigmund Freud had to weight on such an important tpoic. To him, it was all about the, um. bowel movements (emphasis mine):
Psychologists have often taken a Freudian perspective when describing why people collect. They highlight the controlling and impulsive dark side to collecting, the need for people to have "an object of desire." This desire, and hence the innate propensity to collect, begins at birth. The infant first desires the emotional and physical comfort of the nourishing breast, then the familiar baby blanket the child clings to for comfort and security. Stuffed animals, favorite toys are taken to bed and provide the emotional security needed to fall asleep. A sense of ownership and control is facilitated through possession of these items for the vulnerable child. Freud himself took a more extreme position on the origins of collecting. Not surprisingly, he postulated that all collecting stems from unresolved toilet training conflict. Freud took the stance that the loss of bowel control was a traumatic experience, and the product from the bowels was disgusting and frightening to the child. Therefore the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their "possessions" which were long flushed down the toilet. Where Freud linked object fixation to the anal-retentive stage in childhood, Muensterberger, in his perspective paper "Unruly Passion" believes collecting to be a "need-driven compensatory behavior where every new object effectively gives the notion of fantasized omnipotence." Jung had his own theories about why people become collectors. He touted the influence of archetypes on behavior. These universal symbols are embedded in what he termed our collective unconscious. Using this logic, collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the collecting of "nuts and berries" once needed for survival by our early ancestors.
Taing my cue from Freud, I suppose I could say, "This here is my s—-, so you can make fun of it and me if you want to, but I don't see how your s—— is any better than my s—-."
But I'll think I'll go with Sam Spade and just say,"This is my stuff, OK?" It may not be the stuff dreams are made of, but it's the stuff I imbue with meaning and get some pleasure from. Take it or leave it. We are born with nothing, and we leave this world with nothing. In between is just the stuff we accumulate.
If we're lucky — or, rather, if our descendants are — the stuff will be worth leaving behind. It might not have the kind of objective value that can be turned into quick cash, but it could have sentimental meaning. The people I leave behind will be able to form an emotional bond with my spiritual essence and, better understanding the path I chose to walk, cherish my memory in a way that gives me a sort of immortality.
"Oooh, look. Belt buckles and bolo ties and a few dusty, old cookbooks. That Leo, he was, so . . . not right."
Alas, the rains came, and I lost most of my cookbooks to severe leaks in the roof of the sun room where I had them shelved. I don't miss them in a practical sense, Google-searchable recipes being more plentiful every day. But anytime I seen a cookbook, I feel the old pangs, like an addict who has taken the cure but still has fond memories of the high. I may end up rebuilding the collection, or I may not. My heirs will just have to wait and see.