I found myself back at my laptop, Web surfing. It was all sinkingly familiar. I was suckling on the cyber teat in the face of gnashing anxiety. I realized (not for the first time) that thanks to new technology I’d harmed my capacity to press on through such anxiety. The same way computers had affected my handwriting. My muscles for sustaining focus had turned twitchy and flaccid.
This passage in Barry Yourgrau’s latest book Mess really caught my attention as it opens up a facet of his life with idiosyncratic authenticity. And that’s really the crux of this book; it opens up Barry Yourgrau’s physical and mental world for us in distinctive poetic prose that delightfully almost verges on melodramatic at times. It’s a travelogue taking us through his life by way of an itinerary of personal belongings, attempts to wrangle their overwhelming abundance and actual travels—the chronicles comprising the narrative all rendered in the writing style that made Mr. Yourgrau’s fantastical travelogue, The Haunted Traveler, a unique joy to read.
The slim feel of this book relative to other printed works I’ve recently handled, this modest form factor is a deceptive container for what quickly feels like an epic journey into hoarding vs. clutter vs. collecting, family history, personal habits, romantic relationships, psychological research and much more.
And while the trips into a hoarding support group gathering and meetings with experts in hoarding and decluttering are interesting, it’s the descriptions of personal thoughts and practices that made Mess compelling. In part because I rarely care to think about the lives creative professionals I esteem, so when I encounter some biographical information about them, it has a greater potency than it otherwise would. Typically, I like to have some separation between a person and their work, so that I can enjoy their professional accomplishments unbiased by their personal views and inclinations. For example, despite years of listening to Fresh Air interviews, I have no idea what Terry Gross looks like and hope to keep it that way for a while. And when I do somehow come into contact with a tidbit about an artist/author/scientist/jounralist’s life, I find out that my nebulous impressions of who that person might be privately are way off. Mess was exactly that, playing out on a larger scale in an unexpectedly engrossing way. When I’d occasionally imagine Mr. Yourgrau in the midst of rendering his imaginings in literary form, the picture that came to mind was of writing longhand, furiously applying ink to notebook pages, perhaps at a window-side table with just a few trinkets here and there, an author—no, an adept, seasoned dreamer immersed in his own ideas untouchable by the siren songs of the Internet. The thorough upending of this mental picture was strangely enthralling; I loved being brought into Mr. Yourgrau’s living space and mental state through his knack for fluidly, at times frenetically phrasing out scenes—though I would probably have abhorred actually being brought into his apartment while it was overrun with “mementos.” Reading the book was like being told, “This, my friend, this is where the magic happens.” Yes, it’s magical all right, but like Barry Yourgrau’s flash fiction microcosms, magical in a way I could never have expected.
Collecting, however, is considered respectable behavior, while hoarding resides in the shadows of pathology. The collector is an empowered soul, showing selectivity, a focused ordering sense, and a decisiveness in acquiring.