A man must have a shed to keep him sane.
XTC, Fruit Nut
Shortly before winter had definitively set in, my brother and I were summoned to my parents’ house under the direct instructions that we were to clean out the shed. The shed (actually one of two sheds) had gone from temporary to indefinite storage space for various belongings he and I had accumulated during our childhood and teenage years. My father has been on at me for at least a decade to get in there and sort what was worth keeping from what needed chucking, a task I kept putting off both because it filled me with dread, and because my current residence is already filled to creaking with far too many records and books. Now the time of reckoning was on hand – my father was dismantling the two small sheds and replacing them with one big shed. In the event I quite enjoyed myself, rummaging through the detritus of my ill spent youth and laughing at awkward gawky photos of me and my beautiful family. Amongst the photos and ‘must try harder’ school reports were the remnants of several collections that vividly testified to the various obsessions that had gripped my youthful mind. Among these were several hundred comic books, various film and music magazines, piles of videos, and a large collection of conjuring books together with a box of magic tricks. What struck me so forcefully was not how much had changed over the years, but what had remained constant – the urge to collect. My Mum wandered in at one point, visibly and audibly baffled at the twin piles of stuff – my brother’s junk filling one side of their spare room, mine the other. She looked around in disgust and said, “I don’t know why you have all this bloody crap!” My brother explained that this was because she was a woman. “Well,” she said, “I just don’t understand it.” We are men, my brother then exclaimed – men are collectors.
I have often wondered about the male impulse to collect, how the obsessive need to amass and organise collections seemed to transcend the particulars of what was being collected. It’s not that women don’t collect things. They do. Just not, I would suggest, in quite the same geeky and obsessively completest manner that men do. My mother, for example, likes to collect sentimental stuffed teddy bears and (lately) meerkats. However, these collections are usually small, and largely for display, like trinkets. If a man collected these “Me To You” bears, I can’t help feeling he wouldn’t rest until he had collected every single one – especially the specimens most sought-after by other collectors – and he would probably organise them according to some sort of system. He might even have a database, or a blog fastidiously cataloguing his jealously guarded possessions. For men, collecting and being the best collector is what matters, not what is being collected.
Most of the men I know collect something. My brother and I have both amassed large collections of music as well as large libraries. Several of my closest male friends could compete. Another has, at any one time, up to a dozen electric guitars cluttering his home in various states of antiquity and restoration. My partner’s father has a whole room filled with model cars, trucks, and tractors. I’m sure all of them could provide perfectly compelling reasons for this behaviour, but I suspect something deeper driving them. I have always rationalised my obsession with collecting records, for instance, by reassuring myself it was simply the end result of loving music so passionately. While that is perfectly true, there’s clearly something else going on. Everyone loves music, more or less, but not everyone has several thousand alphabetically organised pieces of vinyl. “Until recently, I’ve never really thought of myself as a collector. Collectors were people who cherished rare artifacts like coins, postage stamps, antiques; if they were record collectors, they were oddballs who fetishised format and packaging…For me it was all about the music, and anyway, I wasn’t collecting for its own sake. This was professional research material, part of my effort to expand my knowledge of musical history,” says Simon Reynolds, before conceding to the inevitable, “…it’s time to face facts. You’re a collector, a chronic one, well past the point where it’s a manageable, wholesome pastime.” I have long been dimly conscious of baser urges being sated by my collecting, not least because of how compulsive the habit can get. You can fight these urges – do I really need that £30 Moog rarity? – though the urge usually wins, much to the detriment of my bank account, living space, and patience of my partner and cohabitants.
I suspect the desire to collect among men has something to with the urge to compete among men. Mammalian males compete for women and status, and they compete for status because status gets them women. What is maladaptive about the human desire to collect, though, lies in assuming that a large collection will impress anyone but a fellow collector with strictly identical obsessions. Anyone who has perused music-themed internet message boards – sticking to my area of expertise – can attest to the fact that grown men like to compare collections like small boys compare penises. Such displays may be called many things, but sexy they ain’t. “Without meaning to be rude, the sort of boys who get obsessed, really obsessed with pop music do so because they don’t have a life…By the time you’re seventeen, your one and only life should not be revolving around a rotating piece of plastic,” wrote the inimitable Julie Burchill, in a line that elicited a wince of recognition from this (obsessive) reader.
Birding is still very male – it’s all about collecting information and obsessively putting it into lists. Women just can’t get that passionate about lists, can they?
Cath Jeffs, ornithologist
Perhaps a better clue to the male desire for collecting can be found in the controversial and unfairly maligned discipline of evolutionary psychology and its related field of cognitive neuroscience. Writers like Steven Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen have been subject to the slings and arrows of politically correct disapprobation for daring to suggest that our best current research supports the long-intuited notion of essential differences between the male and female brain, differences that lead to marked disparities in male and female behaviour. In Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain, he argues that the female brain is “predominantly wired for empathizing”, while the male brain is “predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” It is important to understand that we’re talking statistical averages here. It isn’t that men can’t empathize, or that women don’t systemize, rather that distribution rates among our species will slightly favour men for the former, and women for the latter. (By suggesting that sex differences are not entirely the result of socialization, Baron-Cohen and his kind have predictably drawn the ire of those who claim evolutionary psychology is at best a pseudo-science. Feminists like Natasha Walter and more traditionally-minded psychologists like Cordelia Fine have taken issue with both the quality and – it is implied – ideology of those whose research would indicate men and women are not quite as equal in innate talents as they are in rights. My own view in this debate is obviously worth nothing, though I find it hard to believe that our minds wouldn’t betray some differences, given the selective pressures of our respective niches in the environment.)
Systemizing, in Baron-Cohen’s sense, is a cognitive process that allows men and women to extract underlying causation from phenomena in the environment and make predictions based on these intuitions:
By a system I do not just mean a machine…Nor do I even just mean things that you can build…I mean by a system anything which is governed by rules specifying input-operation-output relationships. This definition takes in systems beyond machines, such as maths, physics, chemistry, astronomy, logic, music, military strategy, the climate, sailing, horticulture and computer programming. It also includes systems like libraries, economics, companies, board games and sports.
Though this covers a wide variety of human behaviour – from boiling a kettle to thinking about particle physics – such systems can be subdivided into six major categories. These include the technical (like mechanical engineering or computer programming), the natural (biology, chemistry, or geology), the abstract (fields such as logic or grammar), the social (areas like law, politics, and theology), or the motoric (piano playing or rock climbing). For the purposes of this inquiry, the most important of these categories are those Baron-Cohen calls ‘organizable systems’. These are systems that “need to be organized according to some criteria or taxonomy.” Most collections – from stamps to the trainspotter’s pad – fall under this rubric. As an example Baron-Cohen appropriately cites “a music enthusiast,” who “might decide that her CD collection (the input) should be reorganised according to the chronological release dates (the operation), producing a new sequence (the output) on her shelf.” (This passage raised a smile, as my brother and I have had a long-running disagreement about how one should properly organise a decent collection of music. His CD collection, which runs to several thousand, is meant to be chronological, though there are so many anomalies created by this system that the result is a shocking mess. An alphabetical system, by contrast, is inherently more logical for a collection this size, and therefore infinitely superior.)
At this level of explanation my obsession with collecting records is taking full advantage of mental capacities that evolved to help us negotiate the African savannah that was humanity’s cradle. “Such an interest in classification and organisation,” writes Baron-Cohen, “involves systemizing because one is confronted by a mass of input…and one has to generate one’s own categories…The categories are therefore not just a way of organizing information into lists: they are more than that…The more finely differentiated your categories, the better your system of prediction will be.” In the evolutionary environment, being able to identify the subtle differences between poisonous and edible mushrooms meant the difference between survival, reproduction, and an early death. In my world, having the ability to differentiate between 30 Dylan albums isn’t going to save my life (or get me laid), but it does give me the same sense of satisfaction that my palaeolithic brethren felt as they divided up the world around them:
Systemizing is different to classical or operant conditioning, in that the motivation is not external but intrinsic – to understand the system itself. The buzz is not derived from some tangible reward (such as a food pellet when you press a lever, or a salary when you do a job). Rather the buzz is in discovering the causes of things, not because you want to collect causal information for the sake of it, but because discovering causes gives you control over the world.
So on one level my impulse to amass a large amount of records does indeed reflect my deep passion for music; on another it reflects the intrinsic need to exert some semblance of control on the world. It might be records. It might just as easily be a train set. The underlying motives, I would like to suggest, are the same. To repeat: it’s not that women can’t or don’t do this, just that they are less likely to want to. (Have you ever met a female trainspotter?) Nor do I say all this with a view to giving a veneer of scientific respectability to an obsession that borders on the unhealthy. Rather, there have been occasions, surrounded by multiple piles of albums – the end result of countless, irreplaceable hours spent trawling through mouldy boxes of records – when I’ve found myself taking a step back and wondering what on earth’s name I was doing. Why, indeed, I “had all this bloody crap.” “Such an gargantuan accumulation of recorded music starts to exert subliminal pressure,” argues Simon Reynolds, “You inevitably begin to think about whether there’s actually enough life ahead of you to listen to all the stuff you like one more time, let alone make new discoveries. The music obsessive’s version of the midlife crisis is when all these potential pleasures stacked on the shelves stop representing delight and start to feel like harbingers of death.” While I can’t say I’ve gotten to that bleak point, and wouldn’t, therefore, put it in such dramatic terms, I know what he means. Why do men collect? It’s in our nature. Men are nature’s nerds. I collect, therefore I am.