There is a psychological malaise known as “syllogomania”, which is characterised by the compulsive hoarding of objects that appear quite useless to others. One of the most celebrated cases in recent years was that of Edmund Trebus, the Polish war veteran who crammed his north London semi with things found in the streets (toys, stale biscuits, motorcycle parts, Dave Stewart’s broken synthesiser), to the extent that he was barely able to open the door. To Haringey Social Services and, indeed, the various rats who converged on his house, this was nothing more than rotting junk, but Mr Trebus was able to make a case, wittily and vituperatively, for every item in his collection.

Marilynn Gelfman Karp is no Mr Trebus, and one feels sure that her own home in upstate New York is scrupulously hygienic. But her own collection has certain affinities with that of the Haringey syllogomaniac. Both have (or had) the ability to find worth in the most throwaway by-products of consumer culture: for Karp it all began when, as a small girl in the 1940s, she delighted in collecting used bottle caps. Over the decades that followed, this mania grew to encompass matchbooks, airline sickbags, bicycle reflectors, wedding-cake bride-and-grooms, cigar bands, baby-shaped soaps, sugar skulls, coathangers and countless other kitsch and quirky items. There are pages and pages of this pop-culture detritus, the vast part of it taken from her own collections, taxonomically arranged according to the reasons why they became unwanted (“Taste changed”, perhaps, or – a personal favourite – “A bad idea in the first place”).

This book serves as both confessio and apologia. On the one hand, Karp is admitting that there is something a little strange about her need to acquire, say, Jesus-themed air fresheners or a recipe book with over 200 dishes incorporating Shredded Wheat (anyone for the delicious-sounding Poached Egg on Shredded Wheat Biscuit?). Yet at the same time she puts forward her own laconic and persuasive arguments for why “rejectamenta”, as she terms it, is worthy of our affections. Such an egalitarian approach to collecting is laudable, even if it does result in a college professor of a certain age going round picking up full-colour prostitute’s cards off the sidewalks of Manhattan. Fortunately, Karp’s writing style is wry and self-deprecating, almost revelling in how bizarre her tastes must appear to others.

As a senior academic, Prof Karp recognises that there is more than kitsch value to all this stuff. From discarded shopping lists, for example, she constructs little back-stories about the mysterious shoppers, and is able to observe changing buying habits in action. Old (and rather off-colour) joke-shop adverts for novelty “minstrel” facial masks say more about evolving attitudes than a po-faced social-studies tract ever could. Every little artefact in Karp’s vast hoard has its own tale to tell about our rampantly disposable consumer society. But be warned: an affinity for pop culture can be the first rolling stone that sets off an avalanche of debris. After all, it was a desire to obtain a copy of every recording by Elvis Presley that started Mr Trebus collecting – and look what happened to him.

First published in World of Interiors issue 289. Reproduced with permission.

In Flagrante Collecto

by Marilynn Gelfman Karp  (Abrams)

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