I read Scott McLemee’s column on clutter yesterday in my office. Administrators refer to the room as the Adjunct Ghetto (we share it with TAs), and the decrepitude and overcrowding are manifestations of our status. Think of scenes from Titanic where poor but life-loving immigrants huddle in steerage. It’s like that, without hope for drinking, cavorting, or baring your bad teeth in a lecherous grin at Kate Winslet.
Scott got me thinking about the clutter in the room. It’s a form of technology, an external device that relieves us of holding stuff in our thoughts. (There was a study recently that said we use other people’s brains as extensions of our own, for the same reason. Where did I see that? The Times? Scottish Life? I can’t find the citation, for the clutter.) And it’s ambitious: The books and papers piled on every flat surface, some of them never read, represent what we hope to know. There’s something sensuous about being able to see and dig around in the hilly, often treacherous, terrain of the mind.
Clutter is just a collection whose rules got buried. This makes others want to map their own minds in that space. Our library at home, Mrs. Churm says, could be made into a nice little tearoom, with sunlight through the bay window, and a cheery, stifling coal fire in the hearth. Inner Station has no tearooms, Mr. Churm.
Any collection, from the British Museum to the cabinet of curiosity to the playroom floor, is an attempt by a mind to make the world in its own image. That’s why so many donors to museums stipulate their collections must never be broken up. The things might be beautiful or meaningful separately, but the collector needs us to admire the structure of his mind, held in suspension there in the gallery, like a flower in a glass paperweight.
My acquaintance Chaz writes on his website, “I have something really wrong with me. It's called Bibliomania. My physician said I need a steady regiment [sic] of books.” Books are the least of it. His rooms are filled with animation art, poetry broadsides, pages ripped from illuminated manuscripts, pottery, prints, napkins from the dining car of some defunct train, McDonald’s toys, Simpsons toys, etc., and he lies awake wondering who to leave it all to if something happens to him. Who will appreciate his accomplishment, and love him accordingly? His mom invested in Beanie Babies a decade ago and used to announce, “One day, these will let [her niece] pay for a very good college education.” Clutter is capital to them, and they trust it will earn interest.