Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
August 18, 2004 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Metamoving. If you're of a slightly artistic bent and have boxes of books, photos, artwork, etc. many of which don't seem to have as much relevance as they did ten years ago, how do you decide what to keep and what to throw away?
posted by jeremias to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Don't throw any of it away! Drag it all around behind you like a big amorphously messy anchor - eventually, you'll buy a place. Then, you can build a bigass barn to keep it all in.

One day, some little kid playing with a lighter will burn it all to the ground.

That's one approach. All the others - involving discrimination - are up to you. But unless you pare it down, one day you could be, like the Collyer brothers, crushed by heaps of your own junk.
posted by troutfishing at 7:22 AM on August 18, 2004

If you haven't looked at it or used it in the past year, get rid of it (but I'm not very sentimental when it comes to that kind of stuff).
posted by ScottUltra at 7:29 AM on August 18, 2004

I have to say, that after a long and eventful life, I have only one regret: That I ever threw away one book, one album, one piece of artwork or other cultural object. When I think of all that I've discarded over the years, I almost weep. Not because any of it is worth a lot of money now. But because I've grown old enough to realize that my books and albums and pictures and musical instruments are the only possessions I really care about. They contain my spiritual history. Keep it. Keep it all. Don't be a fool like I was. Friends, lovers and spouses come and go. But your books are forever.
posted by Faze at 7:31 AM on August 18, 2004

I especially argue in favor of keeping your photos and other personal/family history stuff. You might not want to look at them but someday your descendents might. Disclaimer: I keep way too much stuff, but even if I got rid of all the fat I'd keep my photos. I am sentimental.
posted by Songdog at 7:40 AM on August 18, 2004

That's what mini-storage is for!
posted by LairBob at 7:42 AM on August 18, 2004

In the interest of equal time, The Four Noble Truths:
  1. Life means suffering.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
  4. The path to the cessation of suffering is the middle way.
Pitch 'em.
posted by ChasFile at 7:56 AM on August 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

What Faze said. I miss the books I've discarded and don't want to discard any more if I can help it. If you're of a slightly artistic bent, you may well wind up feeling that way too.

Of course, if you look at something and think "Why did I ever buy that piece of crap?" that's a different story. And if you decide to become a Buddhist, ChasFile's response will come in handy.
posted by languagehat at 8:01 AM on August 18, 2004

Response by poster: I guess what I'm dealing with is the acknowledgement that much of the "stuff" that I'm lugging around may never be looked at, worn, used again. The dilemma is that you never know what may trigger a nostalgic memory or artistic inspiration and is that memory worth the effort of carrying things around for years? There's also future to think about, what do I want my kids to know about me (assuming they're interested).

I basically engage in selective editing now, throwing away the stuff that seems absolutely useless, keeping things that may offer some interest sometime. But really, those life drawings done on a 2' x 3' sketchbook were terrible. And there are paintings done on space consuming canvas' that simply deserve to die. And yet . . .
posted by jeremias at 8:31 AM on August 18, 2004

I am having the exact same problem, I have boxes of stuff that I find interesting or potentially useful, but I want to find a cheaper apartment, so I have to get rid of about half of it. I have managed to use things from these boxes or find "just the thing" that someone was looking for on occasion, but I'm not sure how much inconvenience or extra rent that is worth.

There is a show on the BBC called "life laundry" that is all about this exact type of thing,
but I have only managed to catch it a few times.
posted by milovoo at 8:50 AM on August 18, 2004

Well I'm a terrible pack rat, so take this as you will. But I also think stuff - especially photos and letters and my old artwork - is the closest I can come to time travel. I spent several hours at my mother's house this weekend going through a long-forgotten box of stuff and for several moments there, I was 15 years old again. In a good way.

I say keep it.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:01 AM on August 18, 2004

Best answer: For anything that's commercially available (for instance the books), ask yourself whether you could obtain it again if necessary. For instance, at a store or library or borrowed from a colleague. I was able to let go of a lot of books once I realized that they'd still be out there when/if I ever needed them, that it wasn't necessary to pay to lug them around everywhere/store/etc. If the item is rare, or has sentimental value that a second copy could never match, then by all means keep it.

For the unique stuff, ask yourself which could be "kept" in a more portable medium, for instance a scan or digital photo. So you can keep the memory without necessarily hanging on to the deadweight.

Rather than saving whole photo albums, cull the collection down to the essentials. Usually there's stuff that you no longer remember, duplicated shots, boring shots you just stuffed in there "in case", etc. that can be eliminated. Next, if there are photos you feel obliged to keep for someone else's future enjoyment, take those out now and make a present of them to said person(s). It's a nice personal gesture, and something they could never get in a store. Then take what's left and put it into a photo box instead of albums. The photos will take up a LOT less space and be much lighter. On my last move, a bookshelf full of albums that would have filled 3 very heavy moving boxes got compacted down to a 3/4 full "shoe box" of favorite memories that can easily be lifted with one hand.

When you get rid of stuff, do it all at once so you can see the discards pile up and comprehend exactly how much space/weight you've saved. Figure what that would have costed you to move and stores, then use the savings (plus whatever you recoup from the saleable items) to reward yourself extravagantly.

As for the items you decide to keep after all that, try packing them all together and then *not* opening those boxes until you need something inside. There's nothing like finding unopened boxes on your next moving day to make the point that this stuff could safely be discarded without being missed.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 9:15 AM on August 18, 2004

I don't like to throw away old stuff I've bought for pretty much the same reasons you do, jeremias, because I don't know what it'll trigger. I'm pretty brutal about stuff I've made, though. It depends. If I see something I like about it - even if it's not in the execution, as it typically isn't, but in the motivations or feelings or inchoate ideas it expresses - I'll keep it. Also I keep a small number of pieces from various times in my life, notebook doodles from when I was in middle school, that kind of stuff, whatever I had the most fun with. But if you can't bear to look at it then kill it! kill kill kill

Oh and if you have a lot of time and your chosen medium allows, cut out your old drawings and compile them into a scrapbook. Not only does it compact things, it's a great way to trigger new impulses, and it's more fun than just culling. If you hate a picture, for example, there's no reason to respect it when you're cutting it out. Dismember it and make something new out of the pieces. It's fun!
posted by furiousthought at 9:26 AM on August 18, 2004

Here's how I deal with heaps of artwork: if it makes you cringe, see what you can do to make it re-usable. Gesso over embarrassing paintings, wipe down or gesso over bad drawings, or chop them into unrecognizable bits for collage, or make pulp with them to make new paper. Or burn them for warmth. (Or for performance art!) Bad old art is surprisingly recycleable, even if it's just for making bad new art.
posted by Hypharse at 9:50 AM on August 18, 2004

Pack it in a box. Tape it shut. Write the date on the box. Put it in storage. If you haven't opened it in a year, you never will. Don't look at the contents - just pitch it.

(This is one reason I abandoned the visual arts and focused all my creative energy on music, actually. You have to make room for the instruments themselves, but you can play all day with no mess, no cleanup, and no tangible products to store and transport for the rest of your career. Far more convenient.)
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:05 AM on August 18, 2004

I'm in the "keep everything" camp, at least for anything you created -- the photos, artwork, etc. Books can be replaced, but you'll never get another chance at the other stuff. What seems irrelevant now may take on new meaning ten years down the road... it's your history, man. You only get one of those. Don't toss it in the bin.

At the very least, take the time to throw the photos on a scanner and keep a spare hard drive or a box of CDs in the back of a closet somewhere. But the real thing would be better.
posted by ook at 10:30 AM on August 18, 2004

Bad old art is surprisingly recycleable, even if it's just for making bad new art.

Yep. Palimpsest.
posted by LionIndex at 11:05 AM on August 18, 2004

My motto is "When in doubt, throw it out."

Full disclosure - my wife keeps *everything*
posted by jasper411 at 12:08 PM on August 18, 2004

Best answer: As for books, my rule is 5 years. If I haven't touched it in 5 years, chances are that I won't again. Also, if the information in the book (I have lots of reference books) is out of date, easily accessed elsewhere, or currently irrevelant, it's chucked.

If the items in question can be used by others, pass them on. I've currently got 3 cases of books from my move last month that are about to go to the used book or thrift store.

I keep very little of my art. What I like that I have done is usually framed and given as a gift. I do have one piece of mine haning in my living room; but that's it.

The various oddities and stuff that I've collected over the years stay with me though. After having to abandon my original rock and fossil collection when I was a teen and we moved across country, I swore not to let that stuff go again. Thus, when I realized a rock I really wanted from my last house didn't make it into the moving van, I asked some friends who were visiting our former area to swing by my last house and snag it for me. My friends were awesome and brought it back with them. I consider this no small favor since I was asking them to bring a rock about 200 miles.
posted by onhazier at 12:16 PM on August 18, 2004

Best answer: Love letters, photos, artwork that doesn't make you cringe, mementos which bring back good, strong memories, and books that can never be purchased again are things to keep.

All else is disposable. Especially if you haven't needed it in the past year.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:20 PM on August 18, 2004

Pack it in a box. Tape it shut. Write the date on the box. Put it in storage. If you haven't opened it in a year, you never will. Don't look at the contents - just pitch it.

This is not entirely true.

My wife and I are in the process of moving. During our decluttering phase, we finally dug back to the box that contained our love letters. That box has been ignored for over ten years. It was a treasure trove of memories, and re-reading them to each other was a fun, romantic, and bonding experience. It's a damn good thing we didn't dispose of them: it would have been an immense shame to not have the chance to read them to each other.

There are some other memento-style things that fall into this category of "keep even though you won't use them." But I don't think it's going to be more than a couple square feet of storage!
posted by five fresh fish at 3:24 PM on August 18, 2004

Keep it all, if not for you then for those who come after, be they relatives or social historians (or both, as seems to be becoming more popular).

Other than that, the only comment I have is with regards to the recommendations that you store stuff digitally. Currently I believe this idea to be a non-starter. No-one has ever come close to convincing me that digital media is anything other than ephemeral, and as such not suited for long-term archival storage.

Your current options essentially boil down to burning on CD/DVD media, storing on hard disks, or tapes. Hard-disk and tape solutions are magnetic, and magnetic signals (a.k.a. your pictures) fade over time and become unreadable. Writable CD/DVD media are of wildly varying quality (even if you stick to one reputable brand) and poorly made discs can become unreadble in as little as 5 years (here I speak from personal experience).

I have many books here that are over 100 years old and still perfectly readable, but I can't get at the first ever computer pictures I made without finding a commodore64 and a 5.25" disk drive, and this is only 15 years later. Please think very seriously before committing to use digital as your only remaining copy of, well, anything really.
posted by Gamecat at 6:06 PM on August 18, 2004

Imagine your life without those things, as poor Grod was forced to do when his father's basement flooded and he lost everything, books, papers, etc., etc. What would you bring back if you could? That might help you to weed down your collection.
posted by Lynsey at 9:11 PM on August 18, 2004

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