What we keep

What we keep

“Things tell a story. Their parts hang together so as to work out a climax,” William James, an American philosopher, wrote on a January 11 in New York in the late 1800s. “They play into each other’s hands, expressively. Retrospectively, we can see that although no definite purpose presided over a chain of events, yet the events fell into a dramatic form, with a start, a middle, and a finish. In point of fact, all stories end; and here again, the point of view of many is the more natural one to take. The world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one another, beginning and ending at odd times. They mutually interlace and interfere at points, but we can not unify them completely in our minds.”

Leanne Shapton told the New York Times that she really liked the idea of objects being haunted and holding more history than they appear to. In her book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, Shapton also wanted to talk about how we keep these things. What do you take from one relationship and bring into a new one? What can you not throw away?

Shapton said she was interested in the life and the romance of things, of objects that didn’t have any value but sentimental value.

And she added:

There’s something that keeps people together, just like there is something that pushes some people apart, she says. You never really know that that is – because it’s unexplained itself. I wasn’t trying to say that we can understand people through their things. It was more a case of the residue of love: What we infuse with love, the meaning we assign to completely meaningless things. I was much more interested in love occupying things and then disappearing, and what’s left afterward, and how we feel about that. It’s about looking at it from a different side, and playing with the conceits of how many stories do exist in inanimate objects.

The questions people most often ask after a relationship ends I’ve discovered: Are you OK? and What are you keeping?

Keeping stuff from a relationship that has died is a strange thing, I think. Bad experiences can haunt you, but so can good experiences. But I think happy times haunt me the  most.

Books, and why we keep books, and what we do with books, and how books affect — or can affect — us is a plot point inside The Marriage Plot (about which I think I have nothing left to add to the miles of inches of space given to Eugenides), but I can say that the reasons why we keep books — and other things — can be, and should be, unique to you and your circumstances.

Because no matter how personal a book may seem, books are impersonal. That book you can’t get rid of is probably on thousands of bookshelves around the world (unless that book you can’t get rid of is something like The Da Vinci Code, in which case hundreds of thousands of bookshelves).

Nothing in life is as impersonal as a book. Except maybe an article of mass-produced clothing.

It’s not hard to own something. Or everything. You just have to know that it’s yours, and then be willing to let it go.


There are people who throw stuff away, and people who keep stuff. I keep stuff; Holly throws stuff away in an attempt to grow lighter in her life. There are people who are jealous and people who are not. There are people who are forward-looking and people who are backward-looking.

Backward-looking. Consider where you are today, and consider the different things that had to happen and the things that couldn’t have happened in order for you to be where you are today. If I hadn’t logged into a men-for-men chat room, a series of events that led me to this point in my life would not have been triggered. If you hadn’t done – what exactly? – you wouldn’t be in front of your computer – or on another portable electronic device – reading these words that I am writing on a Thursday in October.

You could look back and see hundreds, maybe thousands, of those kinds of moments in any given day, but that’s the point: The threads of circumstance that lead to tomorrow are so tenuous that all the fussing and worrying about decisions is futile compared to the pure randomness of life. I kind of like that, the randomness. My life has all the predictability and continuity of a choose-your-own-adventure story. I choose my adventure daily.

And you? What do you choose?