Moving is always a tiresome affair. Moving to a new city during a pandemic adds a layer of uncanniness to the experience. I wasn’t able to say goodbye to most of my friends in person, and I won’t be meeting new people anytime soon. In the middle of a metropolis, I exist in a surreal bubble. One phase of my life remains inconclusive, and the next has yet to begin. I moved from Princeton, New Jersey, which, with the neighboring New York, was at some point the epicenter of America’s pandemic. Now, having arrived at my new home in Atlanta, I learn that travelers from Georgia to New Jersey need to self-quarantine for two weeks. I almost feel that I must be somewhat responsible.
Moving is tiresome partly because it is a moment of reflection, reckoning even. I had to bring tons of books, most of them unread, back to the library, and endured a sense of guilt for not having given them enough time. I also went through my own books and records and discovered a few gems, having forgotten that I bought them. It was a happy surprise, one that made me feel like those ancient kings who put animals in their gardens so that they could hunt them. Though when these forgotten gems were uncovered, it also reminded me of how much I wanted to do, and how little I have achieved.
My main research interest is the culture of collecting, and since I’m now at home most of the time, dealing with objects more than with people, I have naturally started to think more about my own collection. I realize that its somewhat chaotic condition is the result of a battle between my limited space and my constant accumulation of new objects.
There was a time when the apartment I lived in was able to hold everything nicely displayed. But new additions have gradually dismantled this order. It’s not just a question of space, but of organization: while I constantly try to arrange the books and records according to well-defined categories, they have an intrinsic power to resist this. Some things stand out as outliers of any coherent categorization. Do you organize your books according to themes, genres, authors, or even sizes? Do you organize your music according to composers, performers, or genres? Often you have to choose one way, but no one single categorization can handle everything. As a result, the outliers get scattered in random corners, and quickly disappear from my mental compartmentalization. This is not unlike a misplaced book in a library (remember those signs warning against reshelving?), which might never again be located even though it still exists. Hence Jorge Luis Borges’s lovely analogy that “the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.”
Confined in my new home by the pandemic, I contemplate the chaos in this tiny universe. Though by no means a great collector, I am deeply fascinated by this confusion, and solitude allows me more mental space to savor the scatter and the occasional surprises. I still halfheartedly attempt to impose coherence, but also wholeheartedly embrace Novalis’s motto: “In a work of art, chaos must shimmer through the veil of order.”
Published on July 29, 2020