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Some things are easy to get rid of: expired food, used tissues, credit card offers from the Nigerian Royal Credit Union. But generally, we're much better at holding on to stuff than we are at throwing it out, even when it means we can no longer fit our possessions in our homes. There's now around 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in America. To put that in perspective, if you lined up every one of those self-storage units end to end, the resulting building would be really really long. And I'm willing to bet most of those units aren't full of Golden Age comics and delicately aging wines. Nope, the stuff we're sticking in storage and herniating our spines lifting every time we move is far more likely to include shit like ...

5
Books

In our culture, throwing out books ranks somewhere on the behavioral scale between torturing small animals in front of a group of nuns and torturing small animals in front of a group of nuns while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Game of Thrones spoilers. When libraries are caught disposing of books to make room on shelves, it's so much of a scandal that it makes the news. Librarians will tell you that they often can't dispose of old books without being confronted by angry strangers, who sometimes even retrieve the books from recycling bins and take them home.

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"There, there, 1846 Encyclopedia of the Negro Race. Nothing can hurt you now."

Our societal book-harm taboos sometimes go even further than that. A woman who made a video instructing viewers how to cut up old books for an art project had to take down the video after a wave of abuse by angry Internetters, and the surviving copy of the video contains comments calling her a "book murderer" and declaring that the video is "quite possibly the most offensive thing I've ever witnessed." Given this climate, it's no surprise that most of us choose to hold on to old crates of books we'll never read again. And when we do decide to clear them from our houses, most of us can't bear to actually throw them in the trash or recycle them: What are we, history's greatest monsters?

Why It's Bullshit:

Look, I know why people have this attitude. For centuries, books were wisdom in paper form. Without Internet access or even widespread education, destroying books meant destroying perhaps-irreplaceable knowledge and history. And obviously nobody is advocating tossing out copies of the Gutenberg Bible or anything.

Mark Renders/Getty Images
Except maybe this guy.

People, the world has changed. I feel it in the 75th printing of Fifty Shades of Grey, and I smell it in the local library's moldy copy of Protecting Your Child from Ritual Satanic Abuse. Book printing is now cheap, easy, and completely morally neutral. Just because you've stuck some words on paper, that doesn't mean that paper is sacred or worthy.

And yet despite this, any online query about throwing out or recycling books is still met with exhortations to donate the precious things instead, usually to thrift stores or disadvantaged children. People just can't recognize that not all books are valuable by default, and that the world isn't full of poor people just dying for a copy of Guide to the Amiga 4000 or Microwave Cooking for Single Dames. Libraries and thrift stores don't have unlimited storage space for our sweat-damp old romance novels, and kids in underprivileged school districts are probably not clamoring for 15-year-old copies of Stephen King novels with suspicious-looking splash marks from when you read them on the toilet.

The reality is that most of your crappy old books won't sell, and if you insist on shunting them to thrift stores regardless, you're just shunting the responsibility, labor, and recycling costs to charity workers. All because you couldn't deal with tossing your copy of Science's Greatest Gift: An Expectant Mother's Guide to Thalidomide.

4
Better-Person Clothes

You're in a clothing store, and salespeople and friends are encouraging you to buy something that you're not quite sure about. Maybe it's a shirt that would work better if you lost some weight. Maybe it's a weird outfit that requires a shit-ton of confidence to pull off. Maybe it's a Panama hat.

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Above: You, soon.

Like anyone, you want to be the kind of person who wears a Panama hat. And you tell yourself that if you buy this hat, maybe you will become this person. The next day, you look at your hat and realize that you are not yet brave enough to wear it. What if someone judges you? What if the salesperson was lying to you when she said you looked just like an unbearded, less woman-battering version of Sean Connery? What if the hat is some sort of drug code among today's teenagers? For today, it's best to be safe and go hatless. But you don't want to throw out the hat, because tomorrow you might be braver. So you put it in the closet, on top of the piles of other hats and clothes that you tell yourself you'll wear one day.

Why It's Bullshit:

You're never going to have a life-changing event that makes you into the kind of person who wears Panama hats. Or bright pink shirts, or steampunk goggles, or thin-person dresses, whatever it is that's been sitting in your closet unworn for the last 12 months. Real life doesn't work that way. A person of the opposite sex is not going to frolic into your life and cure your inhibitions over the course of a weekend. People do change, but when they do, it's usually slow, and by the time it happens, the hat will be dusty anyway, and maybe by then Panama hats will have been appropriated by a completely different crowd anyway.

George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty
Probably Mormons.

We all owe it to ourselves to get rid of our better-person clothes. By keeping this shit in our closets, we're not just rejecting our present, slobbish, sweatpants-wearing selves; we're also saying that we'll never be OK with ourselves the way we are. No, we'll always need that emergency supply of clothing there, mocking us whenever we open the closet door and reminding us that today is yet another day when we're not cool enough for the right hat.

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3
Dead People's Stuff

Your beloved grandfather, Sir Cornelius Rathbottom, has passed from this mortal realm. Your family starts to pack up his belongings, planning at first to throw most of his stuff away. But how can you simply toss away his collection of suspenders? His monocle? His journals detailing his conviction that Adolf Hitler survived the war and was now working at Safeway? After much internal debate, you try sending his collection of high-waisted trousers to the Salvation Army, only to find that they don't want them, and what kind of heartless relative throws their dead relative's pants in the trash? Beyond your fear of betraying Cornelius lurks another, darker fear: What if, when you die, someone throws away all YOUR precious stuff?

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"Even my Applejack figurines?"

Why It's Bullshit:

I'm not going to dismiss the desire to hold on to dead loved ones' possessions. It's human nature to keep a cherished item or two, or even entire boxes. But when you've got a quarter of the basement full of moldering boxes of Cornelius' useless stuff, you have a problem. These objects are not serving dear Cornelius anymore, and more importantly, they're not serving you. Most likely, you're not regularly going down to the basement to thumb through his used handkerchief collection or peruse his Frank Sinatra fan fiction.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
"If this is wrong, Sammy," he whispered, stroking the other man's cheek, "I don't want to be right."

Holding on to dead people's stuff usually has little to do with you, or your dead loved one, or your feelings for them. It's about trying to avoid a painful experience. Throwing away Cornelius' stuff is going to suck, and it's going to hurt, and you're going to tear up at the sweet nostalgic scent of BENGAY and rotting mothballs. So you avoid the task, and soon there are raccoons living in his stuff.

Of course, the cure for this isn't difficult: call in a few less sentimental friends and get them to toss out his stuff while you're not there. There's a risk that by not doing it yourself, you might accidentally dispose of a valuable coin collection or Adolf Hitler's thigh bone, but that's life.

2
Photographs

These days it's easy to cull photographs. You just delete the ones that make you look fat and keep the rest on your computer. But what about old photographs, the ones from the dark mists of time when people used to actually print them out on paper? Every household inhabited by people born before 1995 still has at least one box of unsorted photos that no one can throw away because, hell, it's history, man! You can't throw it out!

Ryan McVay/Photodisc
Look at that cellphone! We have to document this.

So instead we keep the photos in boxes and tell ourselves we're going to do something with them one day. Maybe we'll even put them into scrapbooks. In a hundred years' time, people will find our organized photos and be impressed with our historical record keeping and our awesome scrapbook with its two-page spread on Cousin Ellie's First Food Poisoning.

Why It's Bullshit:

Much like books, photographs were way more valuable when nobody had many of them. For a long time, photographs were so inconvenient that people just didn't take that many. Just a few generations ago, you might inherit less than half a dozen pictures of your beloved deceased grandmother. Nowadays, Grandma takes more photos just to document her trip through the airport in New Jersey.

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"And here's the sink after the nice lady cleaned up Grandpa Elmer's accident with the Mexican food."

Sure, keep the 90,000 pictures your great-grandparents left behind if you want: They're not hard to store. Just don't expect anyone else to be interested in most of them, not unless you pull off some mighty fine scrapbooking.

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1
Stuff That Might Be Useful

We live in a horribly wasteful society, and it's hard to shake the guilt of casually tossing Earth's precious resources into a landfill. So if we see a family member or roommate throwing away unused plastic forks or spare buttons or empty boxes, many of us respond with "Don't throw that out! Someone could use that!" and then squirrel the item away in a drawer somewhere.

Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images
"Yes, you can throw away the rest of the body, but who knows when we'll need a kidney?"

Why It's Bullshit:

Recently, I helped clean out the house of an elderly couple who grew up during the Great Depression. These people weren't hoarders, but they were certainly knocking on the hoarding door: The place was so stuffed that a well-fed individual could not move through some of the rooms without knocking over furniture. Now, these people weren't slobs. They had a complicated organization system for all their absolutely useless shit. We found, among other things, a box of pen lids, a bag of old shoe insoles, a whole shelving system for different flavors of expired gelatin powder, and a huge, teetering pile of carefully washed takeout containers.

If the couple had thrown out this shit before, a lot of it could have avoided ending up in a dumpster. Much of the household goods could have been donated if they'd done it 30 years ago. Unfortunately, they held on to the stuff instead, and very few people want to inherit ancient burnt-orange salad bowls or dusty '90s jeans.

Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte
"Here's some dead batteries and a partially used box of Depends. Nothing is too good for the poor."

And it gets worse. When you're clearing out a house, you've got a limited amount of time to get rid of all the shit in there. When you have entire rooms of crap packed to the ceiling, you can't take a year off work while carefully separating everything that might be recyclable. Most recycling centers also have fees and limits to how much stuff you can dump, so a lot of recyclable stuff also ended up in a dumpster, just because nobody had the time or money to sort it properly. This couple's desire not to waste anything led to a lot of shit unnecessarily going to waste.

Obviously, not many of us are at the elderly quasi-hoarder stage yet. But the lesson remains: If you're too guilt-ridden from watching Captain Planet as child to be able to toss your household crap outright, you should at least set aside the time to take it to a thrift store or a recycling depot or something. Don't keep it in your house, or one day all that shit will be on a one-way train to Landfill City. Plus, if you die tomorrow in a freak pug-puppy-pile suffocation accident, your relatives will appreciate it.


C. Coville has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here.

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