I think I may be obsessed. Since I was very young, I’ve never been satisfied to know a little bit about a wide variety of subjects. To the contrary, I’ve made it my business to learn as much as possible about a few things that interest me, and I’m largely dismissive of everything else. Mind you, I’m not obsessed with anything useful like achievement or money, no I have to be a self-appointed advocate for early 80s hip-hop records and the history of the New York City subway. Which, I tell people, I am not really obsessed with. There are people far more obsessed than I who can name various train parts by their contract number, I explain. That’s about when the corners of that person’s eyes crinkle softly as they weakly smile at me and nod as if to say, “You’re not a weirdo. Keep telling yourself that.”
Most of the fun in learning about something comes from seeking out the morsels of information that build your comprehension. I wonder how that’s changed for newer generations, since so much of that knowledge is freely and instantly available. I pieced together my understanding of hardcore punk rock by scanning liner notes and reading countless books about the era, then hunting down various records I had to listen to (then listening to them, which I suppose takes just as long now as it did then). Now, you can download a torrent of every hardcore 7″ record and become an expert overnight. There’s nothing really wrong with it, I suppose. It changes your understanding of a given subject, but that’s to be expected. It’s your understanding.
I do come from a time when one would have to compile a collection of stuff in order to be considered knowledgeable about something. You could quote baseball stats, sure, if you’d bought and memorized a baseball almanac. But you wouldn’t really know what these players of yesteryear looked like if you didn’t have their corresponding baseball cards. And you wouldn’t know a lot of anecdotes without reading a shitload of other books about baseball and personally looking at pertinent artifacts. Next thing you know, you’ve got a milk crate full of dirty baseballs and five bookshelves worth of baseball crap.
At age thirty, I found myself in possession of several thousand compact discs, about two thousand vinyl records, two dozen shoe boxes full of cassette tapes. My girlfriend at the time built a special wall unit and several boxes in an attempt to contain it all. And still, it grew. I had about five hundred VHS tapes, some recorded from television, most of them commercially available. I owned around three thousand books. It was getting dire. It seemed like no matter how much I tried to reduce my wares, they grew exponentially. I just couldn’t stand idly by knowing that a rare record repressing was available and I didn’t have it. The sick thing is that, many times, I got more joy out of owning something than I did in using it.
I used to have this recurring dream: the house I was living in burned down, everyone got out safely. As I stood across the street in underwear and a t-shirt, watching firefighters hose the smoldering rubble, I felt this exhilarating sense of freedom. I thought of all those books, all those compact discs, all of that crap from the 1939 New York World’s Fair burning to cinders and I did not feel any loss. I felt unencumbered, not only from losing the physical property but because I could no longer be defined by the shit that I own. I would no longer wear my interests on my sleeve, or on my bookshelf, or on my custom compact disc racks, or anywhere that was obvious. I could reinvent myself however I chose.
A couple of years ago, I got rid of most of my vinyl records and almost all of my cassettes. I put all of my compact discs in plastic sleeves and threw away the jewel cases. I tossed about a third of my books and tamed my burgeoning DVD collection with another book of plastic sleeves. And you know what? It was one of the best decisions I ever made. But when I think about all of the shit I still have, it drives me up a wall. And I still have to curb my tendency to pile more shit on top of the existing nonsense. I think it’s time to throw away another five-hundred pounds of pointless garbage again. But not my Garbage Pail Kids collection! Never that.