On Collecting, And Why We Do It


She describes herself as a hoarder. The Chelsea apartment and weekend home in the Hamptons she shares with her boyfriendare clotted with curios, especially cardboard boxes (orange Hermès and black-and-white Balenciaga being favorites), English ceramics, plates (a few from Café de Flore and the Ritz in Paris), jugs (for flowers), little old folk-art–y cotton sheep and, famously, anything to do with cats.”

– From a recent WSJ profile on Grace Coddington, renowned Vogue editor


I’m not a collector in the obvious sense of the word, unless you count an inability to let go of books—even those I may never read again. Other than that, I have no specialized collections of anything, no one thing I’m constantly seeking out to add to some already flourishing cabinet of curiosities. This absence makes me wonder about those people who do collect passionately, usually attaching a larger significance than the rest of us do. In a way, I almost envy them, as if they’ve caught on to some secret of life—of wellbeing—that I’m blind to. Or, perhaps, we just project our psychological cavities differently?

Freud, after all, believed that the obsession with collecting was somehow tied up with our early days of potty training, when watching our excretions float down the toilet bowl was apparently so traumatic that we decided to spend our lives making up for it via anthologies of teddy bears, postcards, stamps, etc. Like much of Sir Sigmund’s postulations, this seems like a stretch, but denying the close relationship of collecting to psychology would also be faulty.

I was much more into fashioning my own Noah’s Ark growing up, when I spent years decorating the insides of my dresser with every sticker I could find. I simply liked stickers, but I also liked the quick sense of accomplishment I felt every time I stumbled across new ones I had never seen before and added them into the mix. It was something, I told myself at least, that I had and others didn’t—not stickers themselves of course, but this particular arrangement of them. It was a way for me to differentiate myself from everyone else: the I from the you, the them, the crowd. It felt significant, even if it was based solely on aesthetic pleasure and an ease of pursuit.

Eventually I grew up (somewhat, at least) and was faced with having to get rid of that dresser. It was by no means something I would want sitting in a room I live in today, but I still had trouble giving it the axe. I forced my mom to keep it in her house for much longer than was probably necessary, because I refused to let go of this special sticker collection that I never even glanced at now. It was a part of me, I believed, a snapshot of my childhood, of a more carefree period. What would I be giving up when I gave it up?

The older I get, though, the less I find myself attaching my identity to things. A combination of exhaustion from carrying so much stuff around from place to place, paired with a general personal trend towards minimalism (which is still only a laughable attempt), has resulted in me clinging to old objects less intensely. With enough baggage entrenched in our lives already, the things we carry can quickly become another burden, and one of the few that’s rather easy to let go of.

I’m not arguing that discarding these items is the right choice for everyone, that collecting is inherently bad or unhealthy (though according to the sight of a hoarder recently getting kicked out of my apartment building, it can be)—I’m simply fascinated by those who do it throughout their lives with the same vigor they began with.

I suppose I technically have other collections too, like the slew of Polly Pockets waiting for their next moment on the real world stage in my mother’s storage bin somewhere in no-one-cares, New Jersey. But those were just toys I accumulated over time, not a consciously crafted collection. There’s a difference there, I think, even if letting go of them is equally difficult. Though both help form an identity, the endlessly refurbished collection is overtly chosen as a facet of our lives, it often creates an association that we want people to make with us, or that we simply want to make with ourselves.

Apparently, that once meant best-sticker-game-around for me, and today rests most obviously in my need to keep all books, just in case someone isn’t sure that I am WELL-READ, INTELLIGENT, and whatever else a book collection might connote. I could lie to you, dress the assortment up in something about books being my friends, harboring my memories, and all that jazz—but that cloying language really only applies to a few. It seems that in reality, collections might just be the premier humble brag—a corpus that boasts something about us subtly, rather than in direct language, fleshing out the sense of ourselves we want to see, often for all the world to see, too.


Agree? Disagree? What do you collect and why? Spill, please.

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