Storage Unit

Why collect things? And what am I actually collecting?

I am a collector hoarder from a long line of collector hoarders.

My grandfather had several collections, the most notable of which was his passion for matchbooks. He would pick them up wherever he went. This was the era where seemingly everyone smoked or catered to smokers, so branded matchbooks could be found at every shop, restaurant, hotel or visistor attraction. The collection became a family-and-friends-and-acquaintances activity. Everywhere you went, whatever you did - you’d bring back a pocket full of matches. If you were visiting my grandfather, you’d bring matchbooks as tribute.

Once you take into consideration that our family business was a flea market, well… My grandfather had access to a truly infinite supply, with a legion of vendors and suppliers networked all over the country, all committed to bringing him matchbooks.

As a result, my grandfather also collected aquariums. He’d dump matchbooks in one until it was full, seal the top, and start another. By the time that he died, there was an actual by-god room in the house that was walled in on three sides, floor to ceiling, by these glass cubes full of matchbooks. Our rough estimate was that he had well over a million. (Miraculously, he did not die in a fire.)

The matchbooks disappeared pretty quickly after his death: both a disappointment and a relief. I’ve never tried to track them down, but I secretly hope there’s a WORLD’S MOST FLAMMABLE MUSEUM road sign somewhere on I-70, right by a big ball of twine. Twenty five years later, I still have a half-dozen vintage matchbooks squirreled away amongst my most treasured possessions, and I suspect I’m not the only one. My grandfather’s collection might not exist as a hoard of matchbooks, but it does still exist as a collection of people, all connected with my grandfather, one another, and an incredible, multigenerational, cross-country effort.

In the absence of a good matchbook photo, here’s Buster.

My own collection is - gasp! - books. I know! Who would’ve thought it?

I’ve hoarded the papery bastards as long as I can remember, with the passion really exploding in high school (a job at Barnes & Noble; employee discount) and burning through university (access to second-hand bookshops; poor decision-making skills).

Unhelpfully, I then moved overseas, and, unlike matchbooks, books are heavy. The bulk of my early collecting efforts have remained safely in storage for over two decades.

A trip back to Kansas City has meant that I’ve had a chance to revisit my hoard and do some posthumous curation. It has been a combination of nostalgia and stress, as I wrestle with two key questions: what I was thinking then (why did Young Jared collect this book?) and what do I do with his now (why should Old Jared keep it?).

My youthful motivations were pretty clear. Young Jared liked:

  • Anything by or associated with his favourite authors (Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison - because I was a teenaged edgelord, baby)

  • Anything horror or SF-fy that was signed, a proof, or a ‘first edition’

  • Anything that looked, like, old

Simply put, I collected books because I thought they were collectible. Even with my favourite authors, I was hoarding editions less because of the books themselves, but because I thought they would be ‘worth something someday’.

To be fair to Young Me, some of them actually are. The dreadful truth of book collecting is that the vast majority of books aren’t worth their original retail price within a mere six months of release. Your average signed first edition with dust jacket is, a year after publication, generally worth less than the price on the cover. Statistically, Young Jared actually did pretty well. About a quarter of the books in my lost treasure trove are legitimately, actually, ‘collectible’ - in that they have somehow increased in value. (This is also a headache, as they’re still in the wrong country.)

However, my obsession with ‘value’ and ‘collectibility’ was a worldview I’ve since grown out of. Being value-focused was a defense of the passion, an excuse to buy the books. It was grounded in an exterior dimension: this book is meaningful to others, and that is what makes it meaningful to me. This is reasoning that subsumed the passion itself. I’m not complaining about my youthful endeavours, but, in hindsight, they feel like an extension of an adolescent need to prove myself to others, rather than simply do something for myself.

Over time, my focus shifted. I began to focus on other dimensions of a book’s ‘meaningfulness’ than simply its potential financial value. Around five years ago, I officially abandoned 'collecting for value: a moment marked by bookplates. All the proper collectors are still, not unfairly, horrified.

Old Jared revisiting Young Jared led to an amusing conflict of interests. Young Jared would be, I think, highly disappointed in the books that I’m choosing to keep. But, to Old Jared, there are some clear themes:

  • Gifts from friends and family

  • Books about Kansas City (often references for my thesis paper, so a double whammy)

  • Books that belonged to my grandparents (and other relatives from that generation)

I’m trying to sell the books that have real financial worth (well done, Young Jared), but the books I will actually keep are the ones that have KPIs more intangible than commercial. ‘My friend in college gave this to me for my 21st birthday’ does not impact a sale price on abebooks. Nor does ‘this was the book I bought with my first paycheck at Barnes & Noble’. But they’re not books, they are phrases in my own life story. Of course no one else would value them as much as I do, the story of the object is singular and self-obsessed. But I look forward to sharing them with my family, and maybe, with time, they’ll be part of the boxed-up treasures for the next generation as well.

Speaking of books, I’m currently attending World Fantasy Convention. In-between trips to BBQ, you can find me at:

  • The Big Book of Cyberpunk: Group Reading (Saturday, 1 pm; Chouteau A)

  • The Upcoming Impact of AI on Media (Saturday, 3 pm; Atlanta/New York)

I’m not officially autographing at the WFC-traditional Mass Autographing Session, because, c’mon. But I will be there if you’re so inclined. If you run into me at any of these things (or any other things), please do say hi!

What I’m reading (online edition) - and, yes, that AI panel is definitely front of mind:

I submitted a longer think-piece about humanised AI to a Serious Media Outlet almost two months ago, and it may already be out of date. Editorial processes do not move at the pace required for HOT TAKES, darnit.

Speaking of HOT TAKES: I found this piece on Discord’s efforts to ‘rehabilitate’ banned users to be conceptually interesting, if a bit mouth-piecey. I would liked to see some alternative perspectives on the project from outside of Discord: researchers, safety practitioners, even users. But parking the specifics of Discord’s PR efforts for a moment: the idea of rehabilitation - not exclusion - is deeply promising.

The current online justice system, such as it is, is based on ‘moderation’ processes that escalate from warning to suspension to banning. This is a bastardised version of our offline justice system; a process that focuses on removing the ‘problem’ (people) from society. It doesn’t work. (Source: all of them.) Changing to a therapeutic model with rehabilitation at its heart would be good for society, but, alas, our entire system (judicial, cultural, commercial, moral, and political) is fixated on maximising punitive, not restorative, justice.

Rather than simply mirror our offline processes, we have a fleeting chance to create an online justice system that is based on rehabilitation and reintegration. Something that educates offenders, moderates them (literally and figuratively), and finds ways to keep them as contributing members of society. If nothing else, given the rampant polarisation of online spaces, efforts that embed empathy and consideration would go further towards solving social division than punting people off into the void.

Obviously there are some fundamental differences involved. For one, our online spaces are private spaces, owned not by the public but by a billionaire-backed data harvesting industry. Discord’s trust & safety team are closer to Pinkertons than police, and very, very far from being social workers. But that same gruesomely capitalist model could work in our favour here: social networks and online spaces want to keep people, as that’s how they profit. They will see the advantage in investing in rehabilitation, so long as there’s a positive ROI.

That said, that ROI is currently built on the labour of community moderators, which is both unfair and unsustainable. (Source: did you see the reddit fiasco?) It would be genuinely lovely to have trolls and bigots restored into being lovely, productive members of online society, but that’s a unethical and horrendous burden to place on unpaid, untrained volunteers - who are already doing the heavy lifting in online communities. If our private sector barons are truly serious about this, they need to invest in the time, money, and (paid, trained) practitioners to embed rehabilitation properly.

We are still living in a cyberpunk future, but if we can somehow find a way to approach our increasingly-online world from a ‘rehabilitation-first’ perspective, we may wind up in a slightly better place down the line.

What I’m reading (offline edition):

  • I’m slowly crawling through the second Lucy Score ‘Knockemout’ book despite finding the predecessor creepy and this one boring. Not sure why I’m doing this to myself, honestly.

  • Lynn Painter’s The Love Wager was very cute, and highly recommended. There’s a shameless inevitability about the whole thing, and a real paint-by-tropes vibe (down to the grumpy cat). The 80% break-up is, of course, painful. In conclusion: very good fun, adorable lead characters, highly recommended.

  • Carrie Summers’ Stonehaven League is a LitRPG series that I actually really enjoy. It is very LitRPGgy (you’ll get a lot of text blocks and stat updates), but the world-building (literally) and themes of empathy make it an unusual sort of power fantasy. It is an excellent plane read.

  • I’ve picked up C.S.E. Cooney’s Saint Death’s Daughter. A+ recommendation from a friend; word of mouth works!

  • Also picked up: Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball. Also a recommendation - and when one is at the fantastic Negro League Baseball Museum, one buys books about Buck O’Neil.

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