Orrin Onken's Blog

APRIL 1, 2012 10:39PM

The End of Collecting

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In the late seventies I lived in a second story apartment on Castro Street in the center of San Francisco. I voted for Harvey Milk and cried when he was killed. People from the church down the street went to Guyana and committed mass suicide at the urging of Jim Jones. Gay guys in the neighborhood dressed like cowboys. I kept my record albums in wooden apple boxes. I kept my books on brick-and-board shelves that covered three walls of my living room. I had a lot of books. I had a lot of albums.

I imagined a day when someone would come into my apartment and ask me, “Have you read all those books?” I was ready to answer proudly, “Why yes. Yes I have.”

Then one day in 1979 a person I had recently met came up to my apartment for lunch and, seeing my books, asked, “Have you read all those books?” I turned to him proudly and said, “Why yes. Yes I have.” Months later I sold all the books and most of the albums to go to the home for lost souls—law school.

These days I ponder how long it will be before I am ready to close down my law office and retire.

One of the things on my honey-do list last weekend was to drop our already-read books at the local library. My wife and I have no bookshelves and a rule against allowing books to accumulate in corners and under end tables. We read a lot. I read Pulitzer winners, Booker nominees, murder mysteries, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Recently, I have been reading the nineteenth century French novels that I never got around to when I was young. In preparation for a recent trip to visit relatives I put Balzac, Sand, and Stendhal into a separate section on my Kindle, walled away from my unread murder mysteries, not allowed to rub shoulders with the unfinished volumes of Stephen Kings Dark Tower series and safely apart from the Orwell essays I vowed to read in honor of the death of Christopher Hitchens. As a reader I am both a plebeian and a snob.

As I pushed the buttons on the Kindle to get my books properly categorized before vacation, I listened to old country-western ballads as they streamed from Pandora through my Sonos speakers. The Sons of the Pioneers played on a music channel I had created a couple days earlier. The albums and the apple crates are long gone. My cassette tapes are gone. I still have some CD's out in the garage and a couple more in the car, but they may never get played again. With Pandora and Spotify and five hundred internet radio stations I can carry nearly all the recorded music ever made in my pocket.

When we leave for the trip, I will throw the Kindle in my bag, where the books I plan to read will be waiting for me when we get settled in. I might be in the mood for Orwell, but there is a lot to be said for vacation nights with a hard boiled detective.

For a person like me collecting music and books is over. The CD's in the garage are dusty reminders of a time when I believed I could own music. Back in San Francisco the books and albums were physical signposts of my intellectual development. I read to become a more complete person and kept the books as trophies of my accomplishment. Today, finished books are the detritus of my aging. Like the containers for last night's take-out, books are a disposal problem.

I miss the old days. My collections--my books and records--said something about me. People could come to my house and browse my collection and get an inkling of who I was. More to the point, I could look at them and be reminded who I was.

Now my Kindle invisibly holds more books that I can read in a decade. I can listen to any music I want, whenever and wherever I want. I no longer have to be selective. I can have it all, and being able to have it all means the end of something that was once important to me.

Collecting is dependent upon scarcity. The one in a million misprint stamp. The rare coin. Limited income and limited shelf space in my apartment made me thoughtful about what literature and music I brought into my life. Now I have abundance. I can have it all, and in having it all I lost something.

I am not going to turn my back on abundance. I don't want to go back to old ways or olden days, but now that I have it, I am not entirely sure it is better.

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