Take a picture, it’ll last longer: Notes toward a system for reducing personal clutter

September 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 19, 2014

If my life — particularly my history of housekeeping — were conceived of as a battle between order and entropy, then entropy would be the undisputed champion.

Still, I’m attracted to the idea of an orderly home. Lately, I’ve even been flirting with the concept of discarding books that have taken up space in my home for years. Some of them are ones that I have read; others are unread.

I seem to attach a lot of emotions to objects, in part because I tie them to memories. When I dine alone at a bar or restaurant, if I’ve been watching a particular sporting event, I’ll sometimes write the names of the teams (and the result, if I stay until the end) on the receipt. When I pay my tab after some friendly competition, I’ll note the place I finish in the tournament. If I’ve eaten a meal with a relative or friends, I’ll jot down the relevant name or names on the receipt. The sight of these slips of paper often summon fragments of conversation, memories of what the weather was like or some other recollection about that time of my life.

When I look at books, I frequently recall something about my reading experience. To this day, thoughts of the Harry Potter series are intertwined with memories of bringing a J.K. Rowling volume and a picnic lunch down to Manhattan’s Riverside Park on a sunny afternoon in 2003.

Books that I haven’t read sometimes prompt me to remember when or how I acquired them, or what I hoped (and still hope!) to gain from reading them. I’ll be a much more erudite/better organized person after I’ve gone through that book, I frequently think.

But my frustration with clutter has been growing, and maybe it’s time to thin out my collection. And I may have hit upon a way to do so without triggering any psychological trauma.

I think I may photograph some (all?) of the books I intend to sell or donate. I’ve done this in the past with clothing I’ve donated, and it seems to assuage some deep-seated twin urge to catalog and to hold on to artifacts from my life.

In theory, I can review the photographs of these absent items whenever I wish. In practice, I’ve not felt the need to gaze at images of, say, that shirt that was a gift from an ex-girlfriend, or that other shirt that was discarded by a friend who was leaving the country. But I know I could if I wanted to, and that seems to be important in its way.

So I’ll be giving this tactic a shot over the next few weeks. Fingers crossed.

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