Once upon a time, I kept stuff.
It started with books. For my thirteenth birthday (in the bicentennial year of 1976), I received two science fiction novels, by some fella I’d never heard of: Robert A. Heinlein. Those were good, thought I, after finishing them. Better get some more. By the mid-1990s, my two paperbacks had grown to a few thousand: paperbacks & hardcovers, mostly science fiction and fantasy but also computer books, history, this-that-and-the-other. I bought and/or read whatever caught my interest, and didn’t worry too much about categories or labels.
I shelved my library alphabetically by (primary) author, then in order of (initial) publication – and even created a database to keep track of them all. I calculated once, based on the backlog of unread titles and the average number of books I read each year, that I was unlikely to live long enough to read all the books I already had, let alone any new ones I might purchase. (This did not, however, dissuade me from further acquisitions.)
In the mid-1980s, I added magazines. I subscribed to a few, right out of college; once I was employed & had a steady income, I added more. For the next ten or fifteen years, I maintained about two dozen subscriptions – the titles changed frequently, but the number remained fairly stable. By 1995, when Jennifer and I moved into the apartment in Savoy, I had uncounted thousands of magazines, each in its own archival-quality vinyl bag and filed away in a few dozen banker’s boxes, each with titles & years written (more or less neatly) on the side.
(Banker’s boxes aren’t the right size to hold magazines, so each one had a bit of empty space inside. All manner of junk wound up in there, where it lay, lost & forgotten, often for years at a time.)
One magazine didn’t receive the amateur-archivist treatment: TV Guide. Those, I threw in a pile next to the tv-watching chair. Sometime in 1994 (or thereabouts), Jennifer persuaded me to get rid of them.
I also had files: canceled checks, pay stubs, utility bills, credit card statements, receipts. I kept everything. I filled the hanging-file drawers in my desk, then bought a four-drawer file cabinet and filled that. Each category had its own group of folders, one per year. If I wanted to know what my long-distance bill had been for October of 1987, it was easy enough to find out.
It’s all gone now. The magazines I recycled in December, 1999. The books, I have – as a librarian would say – weeded severely, several times. Of the few hundred that remain, a third are (for want of shelf space) boxed up in the closet; the remainder are dusty, shabby & neglected. Over the last few months, Jake and Sam have read a few, but seem uninterested in reading any more. (Kids these days have their own books, as I did.) All new purchases are on the Kindle; my last new dead-tree book was The Execution of Private Slovik, a Christmas present in 2012. The files, I threw away and/or shredded. The file cabinet went to one of Jennifer’s friends.
The house still seems a bit cluttered at times – but not with paper. So there’s that.
(Had I not met Jennifer, would I have ended up like those reality-tv people – the ones who have thirty pairs of worn-out shoes in the closet, who have years of old newspapers stacked everywhere, whose obituaries discreetly fail to mention they were crushed in their homes by an avalanche of junk? Perhaps not; but sometimes, I have a frisson of dismay over what might have been.)
That said, throwing out all the paperwork seemed imprudent, so in 2007 I began keeping the important papers in a twelve-pocket accordion file. Every Saturday morning, I deal with the week’s correspondence, then stuff everything in the current month’s pocket. Every January, I put the old accordion file in the closet & start a new one. It’s a workable system, keeps things reasonably organized with minimal effort, and has one distinct advantage over the filing cabinet: once I’ve accumulated enough twelve-pocket accordion files, I don’t have to buy any more. Instead, I can empty the oldest & re-use it.
That’s what happened this year. Papers from 2007 (fewer than you might think) went in the to-be-shredded pile, and papers from 2014 will take their place. It’s a curious feeling, when plans laid seven years before finally come off – one of the benefits of age, perhaps, remembering more of the past and planning further into the future.