Skip to content

Collectors, Hoarders, and the Childless

In my youth, I started more collections than a wino starts bottles. I stopped. I don't know why.

Photo by Studio Blackthorns / Unsplash

I don’t collect things anymore. I don’t know when I stopped, but in my youth, I would start more collections than a wino starts bottles.

Baseball cards, beer cans, football pennants, foreign currency, coins, postcards, seashells, marbles, even rocks (those polished stones featured in souvenir shops).

Even as an adult, I started collections: sporting event tickets, hockey cards, paraphernalia from every professional sports venue in Michigan that I personally visited, souvenir beer mugs, bookmarks, drink coasters that feature famous beers, the left pinky toe from every prostitute I banged (I spent a ton on formaldehyde).

But at some point, it stopped.

I think it stopped when my final collection—children--started to grow, but I don’t know when exactly, and it was never a conscious decision. I just stopped.

Or maybe I morphed . . . transitioned from collecting to hoarding. I started buying lots of things but not different kinds of the same thing. I accumulated volumes, but not variety within the volumes. I bought things I could use, not things to look at it.

Beer cans out; a jar of dimes in. Postcards out; books in. Rocks gone; gardening implements in.

I suppose the two actions, collecting and hoarding, aren’t terribly different. Both cost a lot of money. Both provide a scant monetary return. Both will get tossed into the dumpster when I die. Both impart a degree of comfort and security. Neither gets you laid.

Actually, that last one, though accurate in my (lack of) experience, isn’t always true. Men have been known to collect ostentatious things to impress women, like Khalil Bey, a nineteenth-century Turk and womanizer in France who used his art collection to elevate his position in Parisian society. Still, if I had to guess, the vast majority of collections don’t help in this area. I hardly see women chasing the Russian writer Nabokov because of his butterfly collection.

I tend to believe that collections are the province of the childless. That matches my experience of stopping once I started to have children, plus it’s kind of the hunch of Joseph Epstein, who observed from his childhood that it seemed to him that kids without siblings tend to be collectors, perhaps “owing to their having more time to themselves.”

I don’t think collecting is just the province of the childless, though. I think it’s also, in a twisted way, the province of the near-childless.

Collecting is a sort of obsession (I’ve seen it defined as “an obsession organized”). The parents with the American average (1.7 children, I believe) shift that obsession to activities. Instead of things, they collect children’s activities. Instead of collecting model airplanes, they become helicopter parents.

I’ve long maintained that each couple is supposed to have at least four children. If they have fewer than that, they will tend to squeeze every ounce of enjoyment possible out of the few they have and in the process, make everyone else’s lives miserable, especially those of us with large families who simply don’t have time to put, say, six different kids in six different activities every season of the year.

I find most collectors congenial. Sure, you occasionally encounter the Nazi collector, the relentless dude who can’t understand how someone can’t share his obsession, but for the most part, it’s a private affair, kind of like my blog: I put it out there; you can read . . . or not, but I try not to foist it on people (except for my long-suffering wife and children). The same tends to go for the collector: if you want to check out his collection, he’s thrilled, but otherwise, he’s fine within the confines of his own enjoyment.

That’s not the case with a parent with 1.7 children. He wants activities for his kids, lots of activities, and that means he needs other people to put their kids in the activities, and if they don’t, well, that screws up his hobby.

Years ago, my son was being solicited to play travel baseball. The solicitation wasn’t working because I simply said, “no.” One of the other fathers approached me and explained I’d love it because every weekend is like a family gathering: “Friday night, all the players and their parents get to the city where the tournament is being held and have dinner, then the adults drink until late. We get up Saturday morning, meet for breakfast then hang out in the bleachers all day, then go out to dinner Saturday night with more drinks, then on Sunday we meet for breakfast and watch the rest of the baseball tournament together. It’s great.”

You might as well have been trying to sell a luxury cruise to a celibate by telling him about all the loose women he’d get. Anyone who knows me and my bookish/introverted bent would realize that my friendly acquaintance had just described my weekend from hell, but such is the passion of the kid’s activity collector that a disposition such as mine couldn’t even be fathomed.

But that isn’t the typical collector. The avid collector is absorbed in his hobby like an artist: focused on the thing, like the nerd using tweezers to put stamps in little plastic sleeves.

It’s a beautiful thing, even a noble thing at some level, as evidenced by the fact that he can do it by himself without bothering the rest of us.

“There are few ways,” Samuel Johnson observed, “in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.”

One of those few ways, I’d submit, is collecting.