When journalist and author Alison Stewart cleaned out her family’s basement after the death of both parents, she found herself up to her neck in stuff. The daunting task, undertaken by Stewart, her sister, a good friend and some junk removal professionals, took eight months during which time the family house went from “family museum to mausoleum.” They sorted through the worthless, the sentimental and the impossible to categorize. “Don’t look at pictures!” they vowed in the interest of expediency.

“So much of this junk is the history of our family,” Stewart writes in her lively survey of the dark and nutty world of junk. Stuff is complicated because it links us to our past and positions us for our future. Some possessions reinforce identity; on the other hand, humans aren’t wired to assess value. Thus, the house fills up with stuff.

Organizational gurus, container stores, self-storage units, junk haulers, reality TV shows, tiny houses, the smartphone, and PTSD and ADD all come into play in Stewart’s ambitious, fun book. For many people, a thing is not a thing, it’s a memory. Loss averse humans are hard put to toss a memory into a dumpster — so down to the basement it goes.

“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it,” George Carlin said in a rant on Americans and their obsession with stuff. And it appears humans are programmed to live in permanent structures. Dignity Village, on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., is a city-sanctioned village of homeless people that live in small cottages. The homeless settlers transitioned from nomads pushing shopping carts to villagers. Stewart says we are “hard-wired place makers.”

Junk is a huge issue in America and Stewart devoted two years of her life on research. She presents a sort of junk continuum that spans from the 2 to 4 percent of our population who are true hoarders to collectors (one in three people collect something) to “shop and drop” types for whom the shopping is more important than the possessing. The shop and droppers bring their purchases home and drop them, still bagged and tagged, to languish untouched till they rot.

Within this mix of stuff-acquirers are people with attention deficit disorders, chronic disorganization issues and post traumatic stress disorder. “Everyone in the field, from junk collectors to closet organizers, will tell you anecdotally that a traumatic event — a death, the end of a marriage, loss of a job — can trigger problems discarding things,” writes Stewart.

Aging doesn’t help. Cognitive functions take a bit of a beating as we age, and that results in an exacerbated inability to get rid of things. And if you were born during the Depression, forget it. Hold on to stuff for dear life.

Generationally, there’s some hope when it comes to stuff. The Baby Boomers, and there are 76 million of them, were coached by society to “buy, buy, buy,” writes Stewart. But the Millennials, and there are 80 million of them, do not collect albums and books and photo albums like the Boomers do. A lot more of Millennials’ stuff is stored in the smart phone. The Millennials also seem to be revising the great American Dream. They are more likely to want to live in an urban environment and, overall, they prefer smaller abodes. It’s no surprise the tiny home movement has caught fire. In the 1950s, the average size of a house was 938 square feet or 300 square feet per person. Today the average home is 2,300 square feet, or 900 square feet. Millennials, who grapple with big college loans and a shortage of affordable housing, are just naturally paring down the scope and scale of the American Dream.

We amass, collect and covet. That is our nature as human beings. But when life revolves around material possessions, people feel overwhelmed. It’s surprising to read that 67 percent of self-storage renters have garages, 77 percent have attics and 33 percent have basements, leading us to believe that out of sight is out of mind. Marie Kondo, in her bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” writes that “people keep things because of an attachment to the past or a fear of the future.” Things are inherently at odds with serenity.

It’s a complex issue influenced by circumstance, psychology, human nature and the highly individual nature of our personal aesthetics. Who knew that if we touch something, we are more likely to want it? We are driven to settle and we contend with an urgency to collect. This combination is fraught with trouble.

We are but pawns to our psychology. Items from a wunderkammern or cabinet of curiosities can be viewed in many encyclopedic museums. We’ve been collecting for as long as we’ve been making. Houses make it easier. Trauma prods us even more. And old age messes with our executive functioning, making it hard to decide what to keep and what to toss. The two years Alison Stewart spent researching this topic yields an entertaining but comprehensive view on one gnarly aspect of the human condition. I was not fond of the extended Q&A interviews with some of those in the junk field, but I found the book timely, valuable and full of wonderful sentences.

— Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@gmail.com Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.

“Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff” By Alison Stewart. Chicago Review Press, Chicago, 2016. 304 pages. $26.99.