Shelf life
August 1, 2010 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm like a character in a dystopian science-fiction novel, holed up in a cave full of cultural artefacts, waiting for the young Jenny Agutter to arrive in a tinfoil miniskirt, fleeing a poisonous cloud on the surface, to check out my stash and ask me: "Who exactly was the Quicksilver Messenger Service? Who was this Virginia Woolf? What kind of man was Jonah Hex?" - Stewart Lee on comics, books, CDs and shelves. Many, many feet of shelves.
posted by Artw (26 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
3ft of Arthur Machen is pretty hardcore. I've got, like, 2 books of short stories and that's it.
posted by Artw at 8:27 PM on August 1, 2010

This is cool to do if you're a famous guy who, like, owns a house and shit. Me, I've got a metric fuckton of graphic novels that, having read them, are now basically ballast and live in half a dozen big-ass boxes in the walk-in closet of my apartment of failure. The days of everything getting published digitally can't get here fast enough for the likes of me.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:32 PM on August 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

> I had 6ft of Fall CDs, 5ft 8in of Miles Davis, 5ft 6in of Sonic Youth and its solo spin-offs, 5ft 2in of John Coltrane...

As a collector of vinyl records I can to some extent relate to Mr. Lee's compulsion to have all of this material on hand. However, last year I passed some sort of tipping point wherein my records went from being a collection I was proud of and happy to have around to a source of unhappiness and stress. Maybe it's a side effect of encroaching middle age (I'm 36), but at some point I realized that I was never, ever going to listen to the vast majority of those records again, or at all (and that my adolescent fantasies of people (i.e. girls, mostly) visiting my house and admiring my collection no longer held any appeal).

As I've grown older I've become more aware of the fact that my time here on planet Earth is limited and that I have to pick my spots in terms of which books I read, which albums I listen to, etc., and having thousands of records lying around merely drew attention to the fact that I was never going to be able to give most of them my undivided attention. As a result I was always racing from one LP to another, always feeling like I was running on a vinyl treadmill that would never stop as I voraciously acquired new albums that would pile up like chores I had yet to attend to; Henry Rollins' routine about how your possessions can wind up owning you came to mind. One day I decided I'd had enough, sold or gave away about two thirds of my collection (I still have approximately 1000) and made a pact with myself; from here on in if I add a record to my shelves I have to get rid of one. Since then I've been much happier (and I no longer have to store overflow records in my dank basement). YMMV of course, and that's cool, but when I dropped off the last of the discards at the Goodwill I felt like I was being carried along by angels.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:59 PM on August 1, 2010 [17 favorites]

Kittens, dude, If I can lump my boxes of crap from tiny london flat to tiny London flat and across the ocean to live in storage then into an unfinished concrete room where it's sat unlooked at till this day then you can do it. Remember, it's not just stuff, it's a sacred duty.

(building those shelves real soon now)
posted by Artw at 9:05 PM on August 1, 2010

I didn't think it was possible, but... I... I love Stewart Lee even more now.
posted by shmegegge at 10:20 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having moved for what I hope is the last time for another ten years or so, I look forward to now being able to buy vinyl again without feeling guilty.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:55 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


(he has magic shelves that you don't see until you need to see them! I MUST KNOW THE SECRET!)
posted by mightygodking at 12:26 AM on August 2, 2010

2½ ft of Jandek isn't a collection...that's a suicide note.
posted by oh pollo! at 1:22 AM on August 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

Reading this yesterday I looked guilty over at my approx 12ft of old CDs and checked that yes 'rip the best tracks off them onto my PC' was still somewhere at the bottom of my to do list. They're basically the only legacy of the huge amount of stuff I used to have before I discovered ebay and seriously thinned out my book and comic collection. And now I only keep a book if I'm pretty damn sure I'm going to read it again.

And with the magic of the internet I've not seriously re-listened to anything for quite some time now (and have gone through the combined output of the Beatles, Stones and Floyd)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:35 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

"waiting for the young Jenny Agutter to arrive in a tinfoil miniskirt"

in his dreams...(and mine when i was little tbh)
posted by marienbad at 3:35 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

And I thought my 2' 9" of Fall CDs was something to brag about. I feel... less than manly right now.
posted by Decani at 4:27 AM on August 2, 2010

I'm also in my mid-thirties and my book collection is quickly losing its lustre. I'm more busy with the kids and other commitments than reading these days, but I'm still in love with the idea of fitted bookcases. But instead of a dark, foreboding study with mahogny shelves and heavy drapes, I'd like something lighter, with pine and white surfaces (yes, I'm Scandinavian, why do you ask?)
posted by Harald74 at 5:15 AM on August 2, 2010

I have a love/hate relationship with digitized music. Yes, it frees up precious shelf space. But buying albums digitally? The best you can hope for is a cover image embedded for iTunes compatibility and *maybe* a PDF of liner notes. What am I supposed to do with that?

Just the other day I reactivated my account on and did another small purge of my CD collection and realized that their real value to me is definitely as objects which provide me with a physical link to the past. The CDs that I won't even consider parting with are the ones that contain music I associate strongly with a particular period of my life, and I can remember exactly where I bought them.

I don't really have that many discs (I don't measure by linear feet) and I have space for them, so they haven't become an an anchor around my neck yet.
posted by usonian at 5:32 AM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I pictured myself old and bearded and blubbery, lying on the floor drinking malt whisky and expanding my mind

Why wait for retirement; I do this several nights a week.

5ft 6in of Sonic Youth and its solo spin-offs

Pah. A shelf of Thurston Moore's guest projects alone is nearly 7ft.

reprints of all Barry Windsor Smith's Conan comics, and more than a dozen hardback copies of Francis Brett Young's Shropshire novels that I have never read.

Libraries, dude. Don't dump it off at your local boot fair if you decide to get rid of your books and ephemera, give it to a library that wants to house such things.

(If Lee imagines himself as The Old Man, then I'm Indiana Jones, shouting, "It belongs in a library!")
posted by octobersurprise at 6:24 AM on August 2, 2010

I'm given to understand that library aquisitions don't really work like that and that they get a bit annoyed when you think they do.
posted by Artw at 6:27 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just the other day I reactivated my account on and did another small purge of my CD collection and realized that their real value to me is definitely as objects which provide me with a physical link to the past. The CDs that I won't even consider parting with are the ones that contain music I associate strongly with a particular period of my life, and I can remember exactly where I bought them.

Sounds like my collection of video games. Games I that bought used from GameStop last month for cheap don't have much value to me, but if you tried to take my Aero the Acro-bat 2 or Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga cartridges, then we'd have to kung-fu fight.
posted by Servo5678 at 6:35 AM on August 2, 2010

Well, no, you can't just back up a truck. But if he has complete runs of rare or ephemeral items, then, yeah, he can probably find a library that would be delighted to take it off his hands.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:38 AM on August 2, 2010

My wife came running down the stairs with this article last night shouting "he's just like you". Pretty much most of it does ring familiar, although his partner seems less inclined to threats of arson than mine. 

Reading this thread has also made me realise that my daydreams have shifted from girls being amazed at the obscurity and breadth of my music collection to my infant son growing up and saying "Wow Dad! You mean in some of the shoeboxes on this house there're complete runs of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol AND Animal Man! You're the coolest!"

Like Stewart Lee, I suspect he will look less fondly on my Love and Rockets trades than I hope. 
posted by Hartster at 7:09 AM on August 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

And don't talk to me about iPods. They haven't built the iPod that can cope with that. And I want inlay cards, and accompanying essays and the physical contact with the physical objects and the memories they evoke.

I feel him there.

When I was growing up the act of buying and collecting CDs was a big part of my identity. I kept my CD cases in an ever expanding CD rack, and my discs in a wallet that was in my car at all times. I carefully currated what was left in the cases, and what was always on hand to listen to while driving. New stuff got moved to the front of the wallet and older stuff migrated to the back. Each CD was its own world, with its own disc art, packaging art, and memories associated with it. I would sometimes flip through the empty cases, pull something out, flip through the liner notes, and then put it back.

I would go to the local independent store to pick up stuff recommended to me by my older, cooler brother, or that I'd learned about on IRC. I would go to local hardcore shows, and buy CDs of bands that would make one CD-R pressed album and then disband.

And then my CDs got stolen the first time.

I made the mistake of leaving my CD wallet with the entirety of my collection in plain view in my car. The thieves smashed 4 of my windows, stole the CD wallet, and about $4.00 in change, and then (frustrated by me having a built-in stock radio, I presume) they forced the car into neutral and rolled it down a hill into a rock. The fuckers.

Even more than having to fix the glass in the car, it was a body blow to lose my music collection. Now all of those cases were just useless plastic. I'd ripped all of my music to digital, so I still had that. However, with my music gone, I got into the habit of just making mixed CDs instead of replicating the exact albums. I ended up tossing all of the packaging. I still had some stuff left in my collection (a Shins ablum that was left in the CD player, and a Black Keys album that I'd let a friend borrow, plus all of the stuff not currently in circulation). So I rebuilt. I started buying albums again, and made another CD wallet worth of music - albeit a little half-heartedly at this point. The independent store where I'd bought so much music I'd loved before also closed at this point.

Something had changed though. I'd gotten into the habit of listening to mixes instead of straight-through albums. It was more about singles than it was about the flow of an entire record. This is also about the time that I signed up for e-music. I'd pirated a few albums before, but otherwise I'd staunchly bought and paid for physical copies of almost everything I owned. Having immediate digital copies of new music made me listen to complete albums very rarely. I usually just flicked through them for songs I liked, and never really got a whole album experience.

I still bought physical media, but at a much slower pace than before.

And then my collection got stolen... again. I parked my car on a Baltimore street, neglecting to lock the one lock that no longer worked automatically, and I woke up the next morning to find myself short yet another CD collection (and a laptop and mp3 player). I basically said "fuck it," at that point.

I've bought... maybe 3 CDs in the intervening 2 years. My collection resides now almost entirely on my hard-disc and a backup removable drive. I rarely listen to an album all the way through, and the only way I consume music is through randomizing my library, and making mixes with songs that I like.

It's been months since I've flipped through the liner notes of jewel case. Years since I've prised a disc from the truculent tape-and-plastic-wrap anti-theft measures.

The trade off to this is that I've started listening to more electronic music, more radio-hit music, and greatly expanded my tastes.

My personalized library made me into an elitist - I often had a fantasy of someone (usually a pixie-ish girl) flipping through the mylar sleeved binder and nodding appreciatively. This never happened, but I was always concious of what I had in there. The other side of self-conciousness is elitism. If something didn't exist in my binder, then it wasn't worth listening to. Since my collection has moved to digital, and I've started listening to the radio more often, I've shed much of this elitism, and accepted the fact that sometimes a song can just be fun, and doesn't have to be a grave personal statement.

So there've been trade offs, and I'm glad that I've become less of a dick. It makes me wonder if it ever would've happened if not for the efforts of two nameless thiefs. But I also miss being able to flip through covers of 200 CDs, and place memories and times to each of them.
posted by codacorolla at 7:20 AM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

It is very interesting how many comments in this thread mention fantasies of girls being awed at one's music collection. I wonder if something similar but unspoken motivated the one friend of mine (now sadly long out of touch, and no one seems to know where to find him) who obsessively collected music back in high school and college. Of course, his collection was mostly obscure and not so obscure metal and hard rock, so I imagine the girl of his dreams had quite a few more tats than the phantasmal pixies on display here.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:34 AM on August 2, 2010

Yeah, I think that the appeal of any collection of physical media (especially compared to a faceless digital collection) is that it externalizes your tastes. In my own messed-up adolescent mind, taste was what defined me (although I've come to realize differently), and since sex was an ever-present topic in that mind, it's what lead to a lot of the behavior and motivations around collecting.

I just recently moved, and part of that was the movement of about 300 books. Maybe one day I'll reach the same point with books that I've reach with music, but I really like having books physically present around me, and at least part of that is the distant fantasy of having someone look through my shelves and give it their approval.
posted by codacorolla at 8:00 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Vote Frank Chickens, for fairness and change, and please circulate this blurb as widely as you can across internet social networks. (Stewart Lee on the Foster's Comedy God poll.)
posted by permafrost at 9:11 AM on August 2, 2010

I too am still wedded to physical media. I don't have feet of The Fall... indeed, in our house, there are "only" about 20 feet of CDs in total. But if I'd have gone to mp3s, I would not have been able to spend last night organising them in reverse-alphabetical-by-composer (spoken word separated on bottom shelf, compilations separated on top). Now I understand this is a simple thing to do with digital media, but pressing sort-by on iTunes does not provide the same rich experience as spending a couple of hours ordering physical objects, occasionally opening CD cases and renewing acquaintance with the memories these small boxes hold.
posted by handee at 9:42 AM on August 2, 2010

Wait. What was that about a young Jenny Agutter in a tinfoil miniskirt?

Sweet Jesus ... I need to lie down.
posted by Relay at 11:56 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since most of my things are still in crates and boxes (and it looks like I might be moving yet again), I measure in pounds, not feet.
posted by Eideteker at 12:38 PM on August 2, 2010

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