I'm starting to pack up the apartment I've lived in for the past five years, and though I have plenty of stuff that needs to be purged, the real problem is my compulsive commitment to paper.
I have a four-drawer file cabinet that's full of paper. Until a few days ago, I had nearly as much paper outside as within it (and that's not counting what's in my campus office). All this paper was well-corralled--in labeled folders, with each folder filed in a drawer, box, or wire organizer--but it struck me that I could probably winnow it down to a more reasonable volume.
Some of it was easy to get rid of, like the folders containing ancient utility bills, credit card statements, and records of oil changes for my car or rabies shots for my cats. But such household files amounted to less than one full drawer. The other stuff was. . . trickier. I had four linear feet of correspondence, dating back 18 years; a file of ephemera such as postcards, fliers, and pages torn out of magazines (label: "Schwee"); every goddamn piece of mail I ever received from my graduate program, including a complete set of letters announcing my TA assignments; and a whole raft of carefully photocopied and organized general-interest articles from places like The New Yorker.
An earlier version of myself obviously thought that I would need all these things someday--and "need" more than "want," for I experience this impulse as being about good record-keeping more than about preserving sentimental souvenirs. Sure, I have three shoeboxes full of old playbills stored atop my kitchen cabinets, but I go through them at least a few times a year, trying to figure out if I've seen a given actor before, and in what role. But with the passage of time, some of my mini-archives become mysterious even to me: I don't know why I thought I'd need an article about McKinsey & Co., or another about divorce laws in Louisiana. Yesterday I found, within a larger storage box, a shoebox with three newspapers and four magazines, all of them dated within days of September 11, 2001. The front page of The New York Times from September 12th is, I suppose, a historical artifact. But what did I ever expect to do with it?
I've always assumed that my mania for paper-keeping dated from my first years of college, when my work-study job was deep in the bowels of the rare books and manuscript library. But although that's certainly where I learned to file correspondence properly (pages unfolded, with the envelope slit to enclose the open card or letter), I discovered last month that this compulsion long predated my arrival at college.
My parents, you see, are selling their house--the house they had built almost 40 years ago and that I grew up in, and when I was out west in April they had me go through some of my old stuff. I knew that I had a bunch of papers in a box in their basement, but I wasn't prepared for what greeted me. Apparently, at some point around age twelve, I started preserving everything I'd ever written: the three books I wrote at age eight. The wacky-ass homework assignments I produced in my early teen years (I have no idea what the actual assignment was that inspired me to create a fake police case file, complete with hand-aged manila folder--but I'm pretty sure it didn't ask for that). And, God help me, the two novels that I started around the same time: hundreds of pages apiece, one a boarding-school novel, the other an attempt at an adult thriller. That box held the complete creative oeuvre of young Flavia, organized chronologically. It wasn't small, and it was full.
I don't think I ever believed that I was destined for greatness--my archival impulse has never been about preserving material for future Scholars of Flavia. But I suppose the impulse is at bottom a sentimental rather than merely a practical one: I might need that. I might want that. And when I do, I'll know exactly where to find it.
So although I did make a major purge, reducing my collection of files by some 40%, I'm still attached to a number of things whose value I can't explain. Yes, of course I kept all my diaries, all my correspondence, and every essay and short story I ever finished. But I also kept those TA assignment letters, and the notes from my DGS on the first draft of my dissertation prospectus, and the letters of welcome from the university where I taught for a year as a lecturer. Maybe in another five years I'll be ready to let those go, too. But right now, I want them. They connect me more solidly than my memories alone to the past and to the person I was then.