Could you name every pair of shoes you’ve ever owned? Or describe every house you’ve ever lived in? Monitoring your fitness regime, weight loss progress or productivity is on the verge of becoming a global addiction thanks to easy-to-build and easy-to-download apps. But a much more exciting exercise is categorising your life into less obvious lists and frameworks. Hair styles, maybe. Or what transport you have used to get to work/school. Or a list of every toaster you’ve toasted with.
In Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, (1974) the French writer-artist takes as his subject material things, space and our relationship with them. He starts from his bed and expands to the entire world (by way of investigations into the room, the apartment, the apartment building, the street, the neighbourhood, the city etc).
When he’s still in bed (so to speak), he thinks about trying to name every single bed he’s ever slept in – including hotels and friends’ houses – which seems a pretty daunting task. But why shouldn’t we try? When we study art, we categorise painters into movements, museums classify objects into time periods and uses. And scientists are always making sure they’ve locked down the relationships between stars or plants or fish or particles.
Categorising our own lives, based on our ownership of material things or our experiences, could be pretty useful – though I wouldn’t recommend publishing these lists to the world (as that could cause new lows of Life Competition between so-called friends). This would be a completely private investigation – because only you will be able to decipher the data you collect.
Material things matter. Good furniture or just the right lighting can give you the peace of mind to complete a project or relax in your own home. The shoes you wear can alter a day or night out (for better or worse). And, as Perec points out, even public objects like traffic lights and lampposts serve a very specific and important purpose that we often take for granted. So next time you’re lazing around in bed or doing nothing but shopping all weekend, have a few Perec quotes to hand and you’ll be able to fend off most criticism that comes your way.