Saturday, October 18, 2008

Archivist or packrat?

 Okay, I know the answer to this one, especially after having spent part of today wallowing in a sea of receipts, museum and movie tickets, birthday and anniversary cards, brochures, maps, photos, and other potential/real memorabilia. Not to mention Papers That Must Be Kept for tax purposes for a minimum of seven or ten years or whatever the current French or American statute requires. (In reality, of course, such papers may abide with me eternally.) I have a respectable box-full of papers that will go to the recycling bin tomorrow. But the box barely makes a dent, as certain Family Detractors will no doubt point out with a mix of glee and exasperation.

Andy Warhol kept a lot of papers as well, with each year’s worth of invitations and programs and suchlike deposited into its very own large drawer. It is the stuff of dreams from a researcher’s point of view, or at least a biographer’s, I suppose. I don’t know if Warhol’s collection includes anything quite so pedestrian as receipts from Carrefour or Hyper U or Intermarché or ATAC (okay, I suppose the U.S. grocery store equivalent would be something like Giant Eagle, not like they have those in NYC). And if Warhol did obsessively keep such low-level evidence of daily life, is there any researcher out there who is going to analyze his purchases on such a minute level? (“In his mid-thirties, Warhol bought more and more boxes of high-fiber cereal, to the ultimate exclusion of Frosted Flakes, his favorite cereal since his late teens.”) Um. I’m guessing that that’s not high on anyone’s list of things to write about even if Warhol kept his receipts (unless muesli figures into his later works, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t).

So why do I (thus far) keep mine? I know what the act of keeping the receipts signifies: a compulsion, an obsession. But what would I hope for anyone (including me) to learn about me via these receipts? That I generally bought the same kinds of foodstuffs over and over? Will the occasional forays into exotica provoke cries of consternation or delight or puzzlement? (“Then there is the matter of the entirely inexplicable purchase of quail eggs in 2003, which apparently was never repeated.”)

If the grocery store receipts are supposed to act as some kind of prod for my faulty mid-term memory, well — good luck to that. My trips to the grocery store (to any of the supermarket chains) both here in France and in the USA have mostly melded into one Archetypal Food Shopping Experience, beginning with finding an appropriate coin or token with which to take possession of the cart, ensuring that it’s a decent cart (i.e., has no squeaking and wobbling or drag-to-the-right/left wheels, comes with a working “seat”), and then (if I’m not just ducking inside for an item or two) going roughly aisle-by-aisle for a Full Shopping. (I add a preliminary step or two here in France: trying to remember to bring the grocery bags with me into the store, assuming I’ve remembered to put them into the car in the first place.)

So little tends to happen outside of the norm — slogging through the aisles, consulting my list (I often have a list, and oh yes indeed, I even have some Saved Lists in my paper pile!), saving the frozen food selection until last, and then getting in line, paying and bagging and then … home — there is so little variance that it makes very little sense to have these slips of papers detailing the What I Bought. One might argue for the When and the How Much Spent, I suppose, and possibly even the Where, but would anyone want to try to count up how many bottles of low-fat milk I’ve bought over the past eight years in France?

Perhaps one might if I could guarantee that I had retained all of our receipts. But I can’t guarantee that at all, and not just because of all the chaotic forces of entropy that swirl about me. I have subversives in my own home who throw away receipts. (Not consistently, but enough to deep-six any potential social-scientific value of the collection.) And there is the little matter of time — as in some receipts have faded almost to the point of illegibility, and somehow I think I’m not going to manage to scan them and enhance them back to legibility again. (It just seems unlikely, truth to tell.)

I am (in case you hadn’t guessed) working up the nerve to toss a lot of non-business, non-tax-related receipts. This is very hard. But I think it will get harder and harder to justify keeping them, given how I’m drowning already.