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The Importance of Nouns

September, 2014
By John Huckans

At our Christmas party this past December one of our friends said if we should ever decide to put our house up for sale he’d pay us twenty percent more than the asking price with only one condition – we’d have to move out all our stuff in two weeks. I really can’t imagine there’s much chance of that happening –  any of our friends know perfectly well we could never do it in two months.  Down-sizing is a what I used to think people did when they bought new clothes after going on a diet.

Some real estate people would have us believing that once the kids leave home and fly off to distant parts, that it’s time to get rid of much of what we have and down-size to a two-car garage with attached living quarters, all on one floor, and conveniently located in a nearby “life-style” development they’d really love to show us.    Good for the real estate business but not necessarily good for the people undergoing the down-sizing.

I've been reading and hearing a lot about the importance of continually connecting to  some of the things we accumulate during our lives as being just one of the ways to help maintain our mental abilities as we age. The people who investigate such matters are beginning to report that when older people remove themselves from familiar surroundings and most of what they’ve gathered and treasured over the years, mental decline begins or accelerates. People may scatter or die off, but places and things generally tend to stay put. Like it says on the gardener’s sweat-shirt that’s too clever by half –  “Bloom where you’re planted”.

This is not to suggest that the Collyer brothers were necessarily brilliant mathematicians or art historians, but who knows maybe they were?  If they died with all their stuff, including their marbles, who’s to argue (?) – except for the cleaning crew who had to deal with it all.

We’d all probably agree that souvenirs are more than generally useless items sold in gift shops – they can be unusual stones picked up from a stream-bed or along the road , a shell or piece of drift-wood found on a beach, or anything loosely called collectible which can include books, pictures or interesting objects of any description.

Almost everything we’ve saved over the years, especially things we continue to use and enjoy, is in a sense a souvenir, especially when we remember where, how and why we came by them in the first place – cooking in old, indestructible Griswold cast-iron pots or skillets that were handed down or bought at a flea market, reading a book for the first time that we remember buying at the Rochester Book Fair in the early '80s, or collecting old postcards of the hometown most of us couldn’t wait to leave after graduation.                          

All of these things are touchstones or reminders of events in the past that may help us learn and remember now and in the future – I like to think it’s about keeping the mental pathways active and well-lubricated, so to speak, for as long as we can.  In some ways we’re all like people walking over a long foot-bridge – if something or somebody took away most of the first part after we passed the middle section, we’d probably have a hard time getting across in one piece and might not enjoy the scenery as much.

But this sort of behavior does run the risk of getting out of hand.  Some time back I wrote a piece called “Confessions of a Packrat” in which I described some of what we’ve accumulated and saved over the years. In trying to understand and explain the reasons, I admitted that as a child of parents who went through the Great Depression, I know it had a lot to do with being taught that throwing away anything that could be of use to yourself or someone else was somehow ecologically and morally unsound.

These days we’ve toned it down a bit – although I continue to pick up hand tools from garage sales, country auctions or flea markets (mainly backup gardening tools to replace those that have become worn or broken) and Raquel collects wool fleeces that she spins and knits into sweaters and things she mostly gives to family and friends (she also has several spinning wheels and an assortment of drum and hand-carders).  Both of us collect books on a variety of subjects, but are trying to keep things under control by occasionally weeding our collection and donating to friends or charity book sales.

At one period during our bookselling days and before we launched this magazine, I believe we had somewhere around thirty or forty thousand books, mostly shelved, in various locations around our village (at one point more than what the local college library had, or so I was told).  This was at a time when college and university libraries were growing rapidly and we published a long series of single-subject catalogues intended for subject bibliographers and special collections departments.  A lot of good solid material, not necessarily scarce or rare, but keeping up with it all kept us on our toes.  Speed-reading, or at the very least skimming through a book and gleaning enough information to come up with a good annotation was very important and one of the benefits was that the work added thin layers of knowledge to my earlier undergraduate liberal education.  I'd like to think that some of it stuck with me.

Nowadays we have far fewer books – I would guess about four or five thousand or so – but with more time spent reading what we like during the evening hours and much less time cataloguing (mainly some unusual items listed for sale on this magazine’s website), our books have become a sort of Gold’s Gym or Planet Fitness for the mind, but without the monthly dues or sweaty locker rooms.

(Reprinted from March/April 2012)

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