What stuff, you may ask? All the stuff. The detritus of daily life, the newspapers and magazines on the coffee table, the magnets on the refrigerator, the photos on the mantel, the books on the shelf.
I even notice fake stuff, whether it’s carefully placed alongside the hollow plastic TVs and computers of model houses, or staged among real pieces of furniture in an IKEA display. Such places sometimes attempt to make the space look more genuinely “lived in” by buying real stuff en masse; Books by the Foot, for example, sells books based on their appearance on the shelf and the amount of space they occupy. $84.99 will buy you one foot of books (about 10 to 12 titles) with book jackets that are all “snow white”. Or, for comparative bargains, go for “Warm It Up Red” spines, at only $29.99 per foot, or $14.99 for a foot of random, non-color-matched books. Selling books by the foot simply to take up space on bookshelves is distasteful to me, but bare bookshelves, or shelves occupied only by a vase or two, are downright abhorrent.
In IKEA, the books and other “homey” touches are merely welcome distractions to break up the complement of Komplements, Grönkullas, Hässleklockas, and other egregiously named Swedish home products. But in a person’s home, they’re clues and conversation starters; you can instantly gauge a person’s interests by the stuff that surrounds them. Now, that stuff is disappearing fast, and without it, we’re all flying blind.
As we eliminate our stuff—or at least transfer it to different, less visible formats—our homes look increasingly alike, largely vacant carbon copies of each other, while the residents are more of a mystery than ever. Photographs that used to be set in frames or photo albums for easy perusal are now lucky to escape from the hard drive or Facebook at all. Vinyl and CDs are heading for extinction, in favor of streaming and remote play options, and the same with DVDs.
I have a Sonos wireless music system, and despite its difficulties playing music while the microwave oven is in operation (I’m serious), there are several good things about it—I no longer have to worry about scratched CDs or precariously leaning towers of the jewel cases that stored them. But I’ve often thought that, instead of scrolling through pages of thumbnail-sized album covers on iTunes or a computer file folder, it would be nice to be able to physically flip through my options; even something resembling a deck of playing cards would do the trick: album cover on the front, track list on the back. I suspect younger readers might not fully relate to this, but the physical presence of an object gives it an immediacy that an mp3 file can’t replicate. There’s also the prospect of those happy accidents—that album that you haven’t listened to in a while, whose artwork in front of you inspires a listen.
This, to me, is also one of the advantages of browsing an actual newspaper instead of just looking at the top stories online. Encyclopedias, too—in some ways, they’re the perfect example of unnecessary stuff, now only found at libraries, but paging through a volume exposes a reader to all sorts of unsought and unexpected entries, which might nonetheless prove edifying or enlightening.
In 2018, we’re incredibly efficient in finding that one thing we wanted, but everything else tends to get forgotten. The Kindles, iPads, etc. are great at conserving living space—but with no stuff, it doesn’t seem like much of a living. There’s little if any room for casual physical exploration, and in spite of all the open space, these “void” houses manage a narrowness and claustrophobia that’s unnerving.
In refrigerators, the trend toward stainless steel doors (which often aren’t magnetic) has left some purchasers without a convenient, eye-level place to put stuff like written reminders, phone numbers, to do lists, and cheesy gift shop magnets. The first three have migrated to smartphones, and I’d be willing to bet that fridge magnet sales are suffering. A bare refigerator door may be neat and clean, but it’s also plain and boring. If it seems like I’m sweating the small stuff, don’t worry, I’m made of sterner stuff than that.
Even the things that do hang on people’s walls often don’t qualify, in my mind, as stuff. Stuff tells you about a person, and as I get older, I’ve noticed that the walls of most of the homes I enter are less likely to exhibit a music poster or something the homeowners created themselves than a nice, tasteful mass-produced Monet or Picasso print.
A friend once made a framed collage of all the concert tickets he’d collected over the years; with print-at-home options significantly cheaper than officially printed tickets (to say nothing of the exorbitant mailing costs of Ticketmaster), such a project is likely a thing of the past, in more than just the literal sense.
Movie tickets and receipts, if printed at all, are printed in quick-to-fade ink on flimsy paper. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to all the fax paper (now that faxes are nearly obsolete), it looks like it all went to movie theaters and cash registers.
Some people reading this might propose an alternate title for this column: “The Virtues of Hoarding”, or the like. There’s room for disagreement—what one person calls “open and expansive” I might deem “empty,” and what I judge to be “comfortable” you might call “cluttered.” But I know my stuff, and to those naysayers, I would advise—as a prescription, not an insult—“Get stuffed.” My wife would say I have stuff to spare for everyone, but the issue is not one of quantity, a lot instead of a little. It’s about something rather than nothing.
The trends are not in my favor, so please, let’s pause a moment in tribute to the memory of stuff. And there is one good thing about all this disappearing stuff—it forces us to be more selective about our stuff. To keep only “the right stuff.” So stuff it. Strut your stuff.
Who writes this stuff, anyway?