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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: December 2023

Words of Wellbeing: Collecting

Eric York Drogin

Words of Wellbeing: Collecting Lonngren

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Oxford Languages is the online manifestation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the latter of which in its most diminutive form measures almost five cubic feet and weighs in at some 18 pounds—reminiscent of my first laptop computer—and in addition comes with one of the coolest features ever to grace an academic text: a built-in drawer containing its very own magnifying glass.

According to both of these unimpeachable arbiters of the “King’s English”—there’s a term you may not have heard in a while—“homonyms” are words that may be spelled alike, or that may sound alike (or both), but that have “different meanings.”  Such is the case with “collecting” and “collecting.”

In its purely financial form, “collecting” is hardly an activity that lends itself to wellness. Instead, it’s one of the most vexing and dispiriting aspects of legal practice. Emanating as it does from a failure to structure and monitor retainers effectively, it places the advocate in the frustrating and mutually embarrassing role of bill collector … all the more dispiritingly whenever the client has occasion to recall that this is occurring in the wake of counsel’s having lost the case.

Far preferable is the form of “collecting” defined by Oxford’s archrival Cambridge (think Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the Yankees and the Red Sox, or Brandy and Monica). According to the online and recognizably more down-to-earth Cambridge English Dictionary, “collecting” is “to get and keep things of one type such as stamps or coins as a hobby.” The first of these hobbies is “philately,” and the latter is “numismatics,” if for no other reason than to inspire concise pronunciation and to preserve the viability of dictionaries for the foreseeable future.

At least as important as mastery when it comes to engaging in a hobby or any form of casual pursuit is the need to keep things from spiraling out of control. Lawyers are well acquainted with what happens when critique degenerates into libel, when citation expands into plagiarism, or when courtship crosses the line into stalking. Thus, it may be when “collecting” turns into “hoarding.”

For my parents’ generation, there was scarcely a term more repellent than “hoarding.” Second World War posters for the “Home Front” exhorted citizens to “serve just enough; use what is left,” instructing that “if you don’t need it, don’t buy it,” and pointing out quite bluntly that “patriotic” civilians “will not hoard food.” Nowadays, hoarding is viewed more as a condition than as a failing, and indeed for the past decade or so psychiatrists have formally viewed “hoarding disorder” as a form of mental illness meriting clinical treatment.

The sheer amount of what one collects is not the only thing that can raise eyebrows. Sometimes the subject matter itself can be viewed by one’s friends and colleagues as more than a trifle odd. Designed for enthusiasts of any and all callings, the popular website CollecOline has numerous examples of what its experts consider to reflect “a passion for less conventional objects,” including Monopoly games, rubber ducks, navel lint, erasers, umbrella covers, back scratchers, milk bottles, banana tags, fortune cookie messages, and sugar packets. Concerning the last of these, it was noted—replete with photograph—that one collector “has thought of everything to keep it well, like adding a humidifier to her cellar. Sugar is no joke.” One can scarcely disagree.

What could be a more suitable basis for a lawyer-curated collection than a trove of judges’ and lawyers’ wigs? ABC News discovered a Tasmanian barrister who flipped for such rare hairpieces as “the wig worn by Thomas Strangman when he successfully prosecuted Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi for sedition in 1922,” another worn “by the very first prosecutor in the colony in the whole of Australia,” and a mid-18th century relic “made of human hair,” before “there was actually a big court case that said you can't trade in human body parts, so barristers were walking around with human-hair wigs and they found they had to go to horsehair.”

More mainstream but no less lawyerly was the acquisition by Yale University of “around 400 legal manuscripts and 200 printed books assembled by the British barrister Anthony Taussig over more than 35 years,” a cache “widely considered the world’s most important private collection of rare material relating to the cultural and intellectual history of English law.” The school’s haul included “a pocket-size 14th-century handwritten copy of Magna Carta, the first book on the legal rights of women published in England, letters from the 18th-century jurist William Blackstone, and papers belonging to a real-life London lawyer praised by Charles Dickens’s fictional yes-man Uriah Heep.”

Not everyone has an Ivy League budget to jump-start a second career as a barrister bibliophile, but however humble its beginnings, experts have identified wellness benefits to collating and curating one’s own collection, whatever its focus may be. According to the CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare, “collecting improves your thinking process through organization and observational skills of the items you are collecting,” in that “organizing and categorizing items helps with memory and retention. Better memory and retention translate to better work and study habits.”

The doctors at DoveMed describe how collecting can lead not only to such mental benefits as “reduced stress and anxiety,” “increased social skills,” “increased self-esteem,” and “improved memory and cognitive function,” but also to such physical benefits as “improved hand-eye coordination and motor skills” and various advantages afforded by “increased physical activity,” specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as including opportunities for “strengthening your bones and muscles,” “weight management,” “living longer,” accommodating “chronic health conditions and disabilities,” and reducing “health risk” overall.

The key to wellness is the ability to observe the principle of “everything in moderation.” At the end of the day—cellar humidifiers or not—it takes no more than a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. 

[reprinted with permission of the Kentucky Bar Association]