I used to live by a simple philosophy: keep everything. From childhood until fairly recently, I never wavered from my commitment to keeping and preserving all the things I had accumulated in life, from fairly normal stuff like magazines and coffee mugs to weird detritus like commemorative mouse pads and childhood T-shirts I outgrew decades ago that I imagined bequeathing to some cool, imaginary daughter. I fancied myself a lowbrow preservationist, sensitive to the needs of tomorrow’s historians. My stuff began to accrue a kind of talismanic power.
Somewhere around my tenth move in eleven years, I began to wonder if this sentimental attachment to my own things was just a way of obscuring a hoarder’s mentality in the gussied-up language of “the life of the mind.” I recently began to pare down clutter. Old clothing and unwanted books were donated; a stack of my family’s old phone bills from 1985 was photographed and then recycled. The greatest challenge has involved slimming my music collection. Records and cassettes moved quickly. But the window for flipping old CDs closed a decade ago. What to do?
It’s not all bad news. Certain niches—regional independent rap, Japan-only rock compilations, promo-only discs—trade for decent coin online. If you suspect you are sitting on a stash of gold wafers and feel inclined to look up current prices, I highly recommend the “sales history” feature of the online marketplace Discogs. You never know. A lot of first-generation CDs, even ones featuring relatively familiar and shoddily encoded music, are now hard to find. The fourth installment of the Now That’s What I Call Music! series was the first to appear on CD, in 1984. Filled with ubiquitous chart-toppers like Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters (Searchin’ for the Spirit),” it is a collectors’ item that sells for about three hundred dollars. If you happen to own this, or some rare Nirvana interview disc, Discogs is the best place to find a buyer. The fees are reasonable and the vibes are decent; you feel like you’re finding your once-loved things a new home. eBay remains viable, though its search field and shipping requirements have become too overregulated for my taste. Avoid Amazon and its nonexistent seller-protection policies.
Chances are slim, however, that pitching your discs one by one will be a fruitful endeavor. If you just want to get rid of everything at once, there are websites that allow you to scan the bar codes of all the discs you’re trying to offload rather than inputting the titles individually. You won’t make much this way, but it’s convenient. If you live in or around a college town, try bringing them to any independent music shop. A lot of them still do brisk business. All the better if you’re willing to take credit rather than cash.
Another approach might be one of benevolent-seeming neglect, leaving a box on your stoop or in your lobby, or taking them to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army, satisfied with the vague possibility that you might have made someone’s day—rather than the truth, which is that you have just taken them on a minor detour on their way to a Dumpster. If you don’t want them ending up in a landfill, then I recommend finding an e-recycling service. Most are online but many cities and electronics stores accept e-waste. The discs are granulated into small, glistening chips and then run through a special tumbler that strips them of their ink and reflective metal layers, leaving a polycarbonate resin that’s used by industrial manufacturers.
Nostalgia prohibits me from disposing of too many old mixtapes and practically any record a friend or family member gave me. But I don’t feel as precious about my CDs. There’s a ready-made romance to the warmth of vinyl, even a charming hiss to cassettes. But it isn’t the mass production of CDs or the bland interchangeability of those plastic cases that leaves me cold. It’s the logic they laid bare, a shift wherein music took on a new status as data, as something to be played on a computer. That said, I’ve kept about two hundred CDs. How to decide what stays? The anti-clutter evangelist Marie Kondo believes that “tidying is a dialogue with oneself ”— as such, we must keep only things that “spark joy.” But music doesn’t work that way for me. It’s joy, mostly, but it’s also a reminder of pain, longing, embarrassment, of simple pleasures turned fraught and guilty, of faith and bodily contortions that once came so naturally. The sound alone should be enough. But sometimes a CD can become a tiny reflecting pool, grant- ing us passage to anywhere else.