Whether or not compulsive hoarding as a sub-species of OCD, or as a separate condition in its own right, it’s hard to deny that the two share certain features: anxiety, indecisiveness, a desire for that impossible, perfect certainty: just as I can’t give you 100% reassurance that neither you nor anyone you love will come to harm in the next year, so I am also unable to promise that those old postcards you threw in the recycling will never be of use or interest to anyone ever again.
Yesterday I was given a tour round the University Library in Cambridge. It is, among other things, a copyright library, so it might be said that one of its functions is to hoard on behalf of the nation. There are many books there that cannot have been borrowed or consulted once since their acquisition, for example the stacks and stacks of early 20th Century popular fiction with titles like ‘The Countess’s Infatuation’, ‘What A Woman Will Do’ and, astonishingly—from 1917—‘A Minx Goes to the Front’. (I didn’t read the book, so I can’t tell you what she did once she got there—you’ll just have to imagine it.)
Pot-boilers, every one of them, and I don’t suppose for a moment that most of the authors were writing with an eye to posterity, or that most of their readers saw them as anything else than light, temporary diversions. Compared to some of the Library’s other possessions—such as the draft manuscript of Kipling’s If, or the 1667 copy of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia as pre-owned by Charles Darwin—their claims on space, electric light and temperature-control seem rather tenuous. But all the same, I was so glad to see them, so pleased that they’d escaped from the ephemeral existence that had been intended for them. Every one of them, no matter how trivial, was once and remains a product of someone’s unique mind, and also, if you accept that what we read says almost as much about us as what we write, a clue to the contents of a whole host of other minds, to the dreams, fears, desires and preoccupations of a whole generation, the stuff that popular storytelling media tap into like nothing else. If we can hang on to them, then the people who made and used them will never be entirely lost.
Objects change their function, and their meaning, over time: yesterday’s cheap ephemera become today’s priceless archaeology. And this is true on a smaller scale too. The pair of open-backed, round-seated wooden chairs that my husband and I use to pile clothes on in our bedroom used to be part of my grandparents’ dining-set. As well as their practical use, they give me a sense of continued connection with a lost past, a lost house, and far too many lost people. I’m grateful that I have them.
So am I arguing that hoarding is always benign? No—I’d love to, but I can’t: we live in houses, not cupboards, and we need to reserve space for life as well as for storage. Then there’s safety to consider: if you hold on to things too much, you wind up with piles of unsorted matter, that could catch fire, or fall on top of you, or harbour the kind of life-forms that you really don’t want sharing your home. With this in mind, I’ve had to fling far more of my past than I’ve kept: some items, such as my parents’ own dining-set, were very painful to part with, but I had no room, in my house or in my present life. I found a company who specialised in restoring furniture of its particular vintage, and sold it to them, with the knowledge that they would sell it on to someone who would appreciate it. That way I knew that something I valued would have another life—just not with me.