The author, wearing black and red flannel, sits on a couch and looks in confusion at a box set of Francis Ford Coppola films.

A Taxonomy of Compulsive Collecting


I lie awake each night with no control over the whirring and buzzing of my brain.

That is not entirely true. I can control my caffeine intake. I can do activities before bed that are calming; I’m not required to send my brain skittering out among my anxieties and worries and memories like a bloodhound after its prey. Exercise and reading are great wind-down activities to mitigate my anxiety.

Another great means of calming the mental storm? Organization. A tidy home is a tidy mind, as the saying goes. I am a continuous tinkerer with room layouts, I make lists on every medium imaginable (from receipts to google sheets to my own skin). It is small wonder that I work in editing and enjoy computer programming: give me disorder and I’ll sort it out.

This is an exhausting trait, but it has become a necessity to offset another exhausting trait: buying stuff to get a li’l jolt of positive vibes. I have a huge library of books, and since the COVID-19 pandemic began, have accumulated equally large collections of movies and vinyl.

Books are easy to sort, because there are only two reasonable values for sorting: title and author (and truly only a madman sorts by title). Vinyl records are much the same. However, movies are more difficult. Sure, they can be sorted by title in a perfect world, but how do you sort a box set? Do you use the title of the box set or the general name of the series (if it is a series)? What if the box set is based on an author’s name or a director’s name: do you sort by first or last name? If the box set is just one of those cheapie movie dumps that has no central theme or cohesion other than “this distibutor has the rights to these four comedies but none of the four are popular enough to sell on their own,” where do you place that? What about titles that are translated from another language? What about prepositions or articles? Should television shows be included with movies? What about documentaries? What about miniseries?

I started keeping notes in my recent assaying of the best way to sort my 500+ blu rays/DVDs/4Ks. I had a lot of notes by the end of the project, and they amused me enough that I wanted to put them here for all to see. This likely interests an even smaller subset of the small group of people who read this site, but that’s ok. This is for me as much as for anyone else.

Pre-2020, I had a few movies and TV shows on disc. That made it easy. The TV shows (which, being honest, was just Seinfeld and Mr. Show and Looney Tunes) had their own spot and the movies, being about 50 total items, alternated between various sorts: by title, by release date, by director.

But then the pandemic kept me in my home for two years, more or less, and I kept buying movies. And kept buying more. I spilled off of the 3’x3′ bookcase, so I needed a new system. Then I spilled over the 3’x6′ bookcase and needed a newer system. Then I started buying box sets of beloved films (Indiana Jones; Aliens; Predator; Star Trek; Missions: Impossible, etc.) and needed a newer system.

Now I’ve filled up two 3’x’6′ bookcases and really need a system.

First, prep your work area.

I began by moving all of the TV shows to their own pile. Then I made a decision that miniseries stayed with the movies, since they were generally a single story, just told in a a handful of segments (as compared to something episodic like Seinfeld). I immediately called myself out on doing this solely so I could keep the fantastic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation from 1979 next to the even better Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation from 2011. My house, my rules.

But what is fiction if not idealized nonfiction?

OK, but now I realize that I should set aside the nonfiction shows. This led me to realize that I should make a nonfiction pile entirely. But what about concert films? Are those nonfiction? What if they have fictional or fantastical elements like The Song Remains the Same?  What about a movie like 9 Songs, which is basically just sex scenes surrounding concert footage? What about something that is performed to seem like a nonfiction conversation? What about a monologue? (My Dinner with Andre and Swimming to Cambodia spring to mind.)

Also, I don’t own 9 Songs but it is a useful test condition for the taxonomy.

So, fine, I put Stop Making Sense and Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night and all of the other concert docs with the nonfiction pile. Now I have a TV (fiction) pile, a movies (films and miniseries) pile, and a Nonfiction/Music pile.

Sorting the TV shows was easiest since it is the smallest pile and has the smallest number of variations (8 volumes containing all of Seinfeld, four volumes of Mr. Show, etc). Television has been sorted by title and gets it own spot on a separate shelf. Easy peasy lemon squeezey.

Next is nonfiction. This is also pretty easy. There are a few titles that give pause: is it Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, or is it Bill Moyers Presents Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, or even The Power of Myth if you really want to get into the whole brevity thing. What about U2: Rattle & Hum versus just Rattle & Hum? I decided to go by what was printed on the case, with the understanding that I was I not happy with this decision but that Nonfiction/Music totaled less than 50 items, so everything was easily located regardless of sort filter.

(During the process, I found the Depeche Mode concert film that I’d forgotten about because it has a weird slim cardboard case that is slightly taller than a CD case and slightly shorter than a DVD case. So if nothing else, this was a fruitful project for that rediscovery.)


Make a decision, think out its possibilities, and commit.

And then time really slowed down. Now I’m left with roughly 500 (fiction) movies.

The first step is committing to a strategy. I’m anti-auteur theory, so it won’t be sorted by director. I can’t sort by release date because of the box sets. I can sort by title but that means two dozen caveats/codicils/exceptions within the first few minutes of staring at the pile.

Start again. This is already too long, so at least make some sense.

OK, I decided to sort by title, from A to Z, with numbers going before A (e.g., 1917, the aforementioned 9 Songs).

Within the alphabetical sort, I am excluding initial articles regardless of language. All variations of “the” or “a’ are discarded. Thus,

    • Das Boot starts with B.
    • Le Samouraï starts with S.
    • A Christmas Story starts with C.


Next, I am ignoring spaces for alphabetical sort. I’ve been in bookstores where The Man with the Golden Gun would precede Manhunter because “man” is shorter than “manhunter.” That is madness. For example, look at this section, all of which start with LA__. How could you possible sort this if periods and spaces had significant value? Keep it simple: LAC -> LAN -> LASTE -> LASTOF -> LASTOR -> LASTW -> LAV -> LAW.

A series of blu ray cases on a bookshelf, sorted alphabetically

Making progress. But then I find a box set that is not easily sorted. Where do you put The Francis Ford Coppola Collection? (Which I bought solely for blu ray editions of The Conversation and One From the Heart.). Does it go under F for Francis? C for Coppola? This is relevant in that it is already annoying to remember that the movie you seek is in one of those rando-subject box sets. Now I have to remember that fact and then remember the name of the box set and then where I filed the box set.


Just put the box sets at the end in their own separate section.

This is a pretty decent idea except that several of them are currently in places that make sense: the Star Wars trilogy is with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi (aka Parts 7 and 8 of the “trilogy”). Should it go into the box set area, leaving the other two discs in the main fiction section? Now, what about these Hal Hartley collections, some of which have their own title (e.g., The Long Island Trilogy) and some which don’t? I decide to put all of the Hartley box sets together, not out of some sense that he is the sole author, but because he owns the rights to all of the movies that he directed (baller move) and the box sets have a little HH next to each title for ease of identification. Great, those go under H. I put the Coppola collection under F but am not happy about it.

Now what about possessives? Do I need to go online and learn if John Carpenter’s Vampires is the actual title of the movie, or just a distribution company’s awareness that Carpenter’s name has more cachet than the uber-generic name Vampires? What about when it is the author of the story and not the director, such as John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People? (That should have gone into the TV section. It’s a miniseries. —Ed.) What about the god-tier silly title of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula? I decide to discard any title that leads with the director’s name functioning as a possessive, but filed Bram Stoker’s Dracula under B.

I’m left with a pile that is the hardest to sort. It has two general subsections.

One is pictures that are—oddly—almost exclusively New Zealand and Australian genre classics. These are all movies whose titles were in English but which were released in the United States under a totally different title. And that different title is the common name for the movie. Included in these are Braindead (US title Dead Alive) and Mad Max 2 (US title The Road Warrior). I opt for sorting by the original title and make a concession to this stupid endeavor by writing the original name on the spine of the case so that I’m less confused. There is a little lost boy among these: The Wes Craven Collection is the name despite Craven only being a producer on one of the three films and it being a loose Dracula 2000 series. Loose Dracula 2000 would have been a much better way to name the box set. I file it under D and write “Dracula, Bad, Gerry B” on the case.

Now all that remains are movies with titles that have a title in English but were originally in another language (with another title or a different translation). Wings of Desire is known as Wings of Desire and I’d wager that is the case everywhere but in its origin of Germany, where its original title was Der Himmel über Berlin (which translates as Heaven over Berlin). What about Spirited Away, one of my favorite films of all time, whose original Japanese title is Sen to Chihiro, or literally Sen and Chihiro?


Use the title printed on the case. You’ll survive.

I’m looking at this bookshelf and feeling like a failure. I love languages, love non-English movies, and try to respect artists enough to learn the actual title that they call a piece of art. But I saw Spirited Away in the theater as Spirited Away, every person I know thinks of the movie as Spirited Away, and even during writing this piece, I found that the title on Wikipedia is actually Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (lit. Sen and Chihiro’s Spirited Away), which either means that I was wrong for decades or someone decided to retroactively add the famous (and better) title of Spirited Away into the movie’s name in Japanese. (It could be either one. Definitely not my memory being spotty 😉 )

So I decide to go by the name for which the movie was released in the United States for any movie that was originally not in English but was released in the United States with an English title. Seven Samurai, High and Low, Cure, Ashes of Time, and a hundred others are filed away under the name on the box (with all of the above criteria factored in).

Lastly, the collections that have no title or no theme are placed at the end. One is a collection of Ice Cube films that I bought because Friday rules. One is Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy but the spine has no title, only logos for the three movies. One is 1990s-era double-sided DVDs of Men at Work, Weekend at Bernie’s, Bio-Dome, and Dirty Work (which I bought solely for Men at Work). It’s fine, they can sit here at the end and I’ll only be annoyed biannually when I want to watch Hot Fuzz.


Everything is filed and sorted. The world seems a little less chaotic for a few minutes. Then I sigh deeply as I realize that I have four movies arriving through the mail in the next few weeks, and I’ll have to shift everything so they can be added to the collection.