Affection for Collection

“Madeline Kripke, Doyenne of Dictionaries, Is Dead at 76”

That was the headline on a New York Times obituary that got me thinking about what it means to be a collector.

Like Kripke, I have a collection of dictionaries. But unlike her collection, which took up her entire apartment and three warehouses, my collection—now that I’ve given away my two-volume Oxford English Dictionary and the magnifying glass it came with—consists only of a handful of paperbacks: The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, The Official Scrabble® Players Dictionary, Dorland’s Pocket Medical Dictionary, Cassell’s Compact Latin Dictionary and Drugs From A to Z: A Dictionary.

As a writer, I refer to these and other dictionaries often. So normally I’d continue to hold on to them.

But instead, I’m Marie Kondo-ing and letting go of what no longer sparks joy for me. In addition to the dictionaries and dozens of other books, I’m emptying shelves, drawers and closets that were once jam-packed with memory-provoking treasures—everything from journals and jewelry to purses, postcards and paintings.

That said, I have several collections I’m not yet ready to part with: sea glass from my favorite beach, postcards from places I’ve traveled, prayer cards from funerals I’ve attended and just about every handwritten letter I’ve ever received. For now, I’ll be hanging on to them, in large part because I still value the memories they evoke.

Taking inventory of my collections also has me thinking about my family and friends and what they collect.

My sister Karen, for instance, collects ceramic chickens for her kitchen, while my sister Diane collects nativity sets from places she travels. My cousin Mary Ann, a quilter, collects fabric.

Writer Cathy Madison, inspired by the pleasant memory of a green polka-dot clothed clown she used to carry as a child, collects clowns. And while fellow Word Sister Ellen Shriner doesn’t consider herself a serious collector, she does have half a dozen perfume bottles she thinks are pretty.

My friends Diane and Alan, on the other hand, get a kick out of a bathroom basket of “weird things” they’ve collected from the sea, including broken exoskeletons and some mystery items they can’t even identify. The items bring back fond memories of past vacations and spark debates over who dove down to collect what.

My friend Susan uses her journals to collect nametags from the events she attends, while my colleague John has spread his collection of vintage radios, which range from hip transistors from the 60s to large wooden consoles, throughout his house.

Regardless of what we collect, our collections put us in touch with our past selves and sometimes with our hopes and dreams for the future. They also offer an ever-ready way to experiment with arranging, organizing and visually presenting ourselves and our experiences to ourselves, as well as to family and close friends.

While I have valued and enjoyed my collections, many of which I began in my early 20s, some now feel more like clutter. I’ve even occasionally wondered if instead of being a thoughtful collector, I’ve crossed the line and become a haphazard hoarder. One reason is because I’ve moved some of my collections—once neatly organized and creatively displayed—willy-nilly to storage closets in my basement.

Plus, I’m feeling weighed down by my possessions. I’m traveling more and beginning to think about downsizing, so I’ll likely set several more of my collections free in the weeks and months ahead. One reason is because isolating at home due to the coronavirus makes it easier to sift and sort, reflect and reassess.

Do you have something special you collect?

If so, what is it and why did you start collecting in the first place? How does your collection make you feel? Are you still adding new items, or have you, like me, begun sifting through your collection with an eye toward curating or even curtailing it? Please share.

Beyond the Bestseller–The Answer to a Book Lover’s Dilemma

My recent purchases

I’m always reading novels, memoirs, or essay collections, sometimes two books at once. Given my love of reading, it seems odd that in recent years I’ve had trouble finding books that I really enjoy.

My tastes have changed. Since 2016, I often have wanted to step back from the real world and put my brain on the rinse cycle for a few hours. Unfortunately for me, some of the books that attract critical acclaim often are challenging to read.

The stories may portray truly awful events (slavery, abuse, war crimes) so vividly that reading them leaves me drained, not recharged. Other stories feature antihero characters who are so unlikable that I don’t want to spend a week with them. Or the author may be experimenting with narrative techniques that are intellectually interesting but not emotionally satisfying.

I want escape, but not just any escape. I’m not looking for syrupy sweet, happily-ever-after novels. Instead, I prefer a believable, involving story, one in which the characters are likable or interesting enough that I can engage emotionally and care about their plight.

Finding good books has gotten harder. Zillions of books are published every year. Amazon has millions of them. The public library has thousands. So what’s the big deal?

I’ve realized that my habit of reading with Kindle (whether purchased books or books checked out from the library) has stunted my reading list. In both cases, the recommendation and search algorithms are pretty rudimentary. Just finished a novel about the Holocaust? The library’s app and Amazon’s will suggest three more Holocaust novels. Wait, noooo!

The problem is compounded by the way book marketing and promotion works. During any given month, only 20-30 books are being touted, and the same ones appear on everyone’s bestseller lists and in numerous articles with titles like, “Best Books of 2018” or “This Summer’s 10 Must-Read Books.” Obviously, there are way more than 30 new books out there!  So how can I find them?

An aha moment. Duh. At bookstores. Where they have actual books. Made of paper. Recently, I visited Magers & Quinn and quickly found several good books by award-winning writers and added more to my “Want to Read” list. The books I chose are considered to be “midlist” (which is publisher-speak for a well-written book that is not a bestseller), so none of them were mentioned in any of the reviews or blogs I consult.

What a relief! The books are out there, but I’ve been looking in the wrong places!

If you’re curious, here are three really enjoyable books I purchased recently–The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, and I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows.