Opinion: Mastering the art of accumulation

Opinion: Mastering the art of accumulation

The generational divide in the act of collecting things – and getting rid of them

Thoughts from... | 19 Dec 2022 | Issue 187 | By Liza Weisstuch

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In trying to make a dent in my pile of past issues of The New Yorker, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one, I found comfort in the snowy cover illustration of the 28 February issue on a late-August day when temperatures reached boiling point. In her latest instalment of “On and Off the Avenue”, the magazine’s long-running retail and style column, Patricia Marx wrote about the trials and triumphs of downsizing. The article, entitled “Getting Rid of It”, catalogued all the many places and services to thoughtfully donate, give away, sell, recycle, or just plain cast off goods of all sorts, from books and electronics to bras and pianos.

In the conversations she recounts, she comes to an accidental conclusion: purging oneself of one’s belongings is very much a generational matter. Whether because Millennials and Gen Zers want to create a space that’s entirely their own, or because younger people largely reside in compact apartments and don’t harbour hopes of occupying large houses, they aren’t as keen to accumulate the heirlooms and sentimental tchotchkes and sundry bulky stuff that they were raised with. This could be a matter of relativity – sheer concerns of space and time – or something more philosophical.

“Maybe we buy as much stuff as any other generation, but much of it is digital – in-app purchases or memberships or things to be stored in the cloud,” a friend’s 28-year-old told her. “This allows us the illusion of being minimalist. We’ve substituted spiritual clutter for stacks of paper.”
Suddenly, I understood the NFT craze in whisky – or rather, I understood why there is an NFT craze in whisky, and so many other realms of commerce. I am convinced that no matter how much I read about and study it, I’ll never truly understand what the NFT craze is, and I’ve concluded that’s largely because I don’t want to. It is, by its very nature and definition, intangible. I prefer to purchase things I can see. And, of course, when it comes to spirits, I also like them to taste. Maybe there’s some metaphysical or symbolic value to that, or some deep psychological yearning: I own, I witness, therefore I exist.

One point of clarification: this is not a conversation about purchasing great meals or experiences such as concerts or travel. Indeed, those are also ephemeral, but they were once lived experiences, not data that began and is sentenced to life in the cloud. And that fact is consistent from generation to generation.

Upon finishing “Getting Rid of It” I looked around my apartment at my collection of bottles – whiskies and plenty else (amari from Italy, genever from the Netherlands, fruit schnapps from the Black Forest, gins from Estonia, Canada, Singapore, Finland and elsewhere). As a proud member of Gen X and, more to the point, a New York City apartment-dweller, I cannot afford to squander space. But I can determine to dedicate my limited space to the things that, as organising maharishi, pop-culture phenom and best-selling author Marie Kondo explains in her catchphrase, spark joy. Can intangible belongings that are stored in an even more intangible cloud spark joy? Or just provide a low-grade hum of blurred gratification and a self-satisfied knowing that one gives off the appearance of minimalism?

I am a collector – not for long-term financial gain, but for the long-term health of my soul and mind. “Souvenir” has a pejorative ring to it, calling to mind ad hoc merchants hawking cheap knickknacks outside tourist sites. But in these digitally captured, chronicled and filtered times, social media posts are fleeting, the cloud is useless if the internet goes down, and NFTs and the projected wealth could vanish with a lost password. Buying things ossifies a moment, a curiosity, an experience, and puts it on display so I never fail to remember a place I fell for, person who intrigued me, or drink I tried.

My collections are organised accumulations, not to be confused with a hoarder’s mountains of chaos. They are tangible parts of the narrative of my past, my travels, my encounters: a Proustian distraction from the everyday. As clouds crash, stocks fall and blockchains heat up the planet, the simple act of holding an object – no matter how chintzy – can revive sights and sounds of joyful moments.
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