Portrait Of A Hoarder

I took my wife down to the shelves and shelves of books in our basement.

“I want to try an experiment,” I told her.  “To show you why purging my book collection is so painful for me.  So… point at a book.”

She blinked, uncertain.  “Any book?”

“Any book.”

She hesitated, because to her they were mostly clutter – books I hadn’t read in years, and probably wouldn’t read again.  She’d have been much happier if I just chucked them all out and requested the ones I wanted to go back to from the library, like she’d done with her collection.

But she cared about me, and so she ran her finger along the bookcase until she found a well-worn paperback with a blue spine.  “Spellslinger,” she said.  “By Alan Dean Foster.”

…and I’m back in my Uncle Tommy’s basement, eleven years old and on the hunt for books, my feet on that Godawful orange shag carpet that smells vaguely of mold because we hadn’t installed the sump pump yet.  The books are all on this dark wood screw-together bookcase with carved pillars holding up the shelves and no sides, so unless you place the books just right you’ll miss the pillars and they’ll all slide off onto the floor.  

Still, that place is a mystery comfort for me.  Tommy lets me read anything from there, which even at my young age I recognize as a rare privilege – I can get all the Stephen King books he’s purchased, though mostly his tastes run to mysteries.  And so I prowl looking for something that catches my eye, and find Spellslinger. 

I don’t know anything about it.  Tommy buys lots of books, often because the cover looks cool.  And this one has a hippie with a turtle.  I figure I’ll give it a shot, and it turns out to be one of those series that both Tommy and I click with and we keep going to Waldenbooks to buy the rest of the series….

My wife nods as I relate the memory to her, and she chooses another book.  “Which Reminds Me, by Tony Randall?”

…and it’s lonely, working at Borders headquarters, because I have social anxiety and don’t know how to ask anyone how to hang out with me at work.  I have been struggling for two long years to try to make a friend and failed continually – partially because I have a girlfriend at home who also has some level of social anxiety, but we’re tearing each other apart because two years of having only each other for company is not what we’re suited for.  

But on a trip out to Connecticut, to one of the best stores with one of the best clerks, I meet a guy named Jim and we click on any number of levels: he’s into RPGs, too, and he takes his job seriously, and we start recommending books to each other.  I don’t know it, yet, but soon he’s going to get a job at Borders HQ working with me and he and his girlfriend are going to become the lifeline I need at the loneliest time in my life.  

We’re at his house, hanging after my visit, which is amazing to me – he asked me, I didn’t have to ask him.  I’m looking at his shelves.  “Tony Randall?” I ask.  “The guy from the Odd Couple?” 

Jim lights up.  “Oh, he’s a master storyteller.  Funny as heck.  You have to read it, here, take the book, I think I got it from the discount section.”  

I take it home.  It feels like the end of loneliness.    

“Okay,” my wife says, slowly.

“One more.”

She looks at the shelf.  “Bonk, by Mary Roach.”

“Shit,” I say.  “I have no memories associated with that one.  It’s just a damn good book.”  I toss it on the growing purge pile behind me.  “A book I can get from the library if I feel like rereading it.  Try again?”

“Clive Barker, Books Of Blood, Volume IV?”

…and I’m in my aborted attempt at college in New York City, discovering that my parents have paid a shit-ton of money for me to become a psychologist and I hate classes.  They’ve given me an absurd amount of spending cash to live on my own, so much so that it covers food and expenditures, so I can also buy comics with what I have.  

I’m pretty much bombing out in classes, and I’m such a neurotic dramatic mess that I’m also destroying the friendships I have, but I do still have enough spending power to wander through New York City and fall in love with it as only a native can do.  

And near me is one of the best bookstores in the world, Forbidden Planet.  I’m on a hunt for the rarest of books – Stephen King has said in a FANGORIA interview that Clive Barker is the best new horror short story writer, and I trust Unca Stevie blindly, so I’ve been hunting for Clive Barker books everywhere.  I’ve read two of the Books of Blood and they were indeed as amazing as advertised, but they’re only published in England, so I haven’t been able to find any more – but every book store I go to I hunt for them, and there encased in a plastic slipcase, at an overseas-inflated price, is the latest Clive Barker book and oh God I’m going to have a wonderful afternoon curled up in my bunk bed reading….

That’s the problem with my book collection, really.  It’s more of an externalized memory.

I have dim recollections of my past unless some external trigger stirs them, or I do my raconteur trick and ball them into a story – a story which, as time goes by, becomes increasingly about the effect of the story and less to do with the actual history of what happened.

These books root me.  Sometimes when I have nothing better to do, I go downstairs and wander through this locus of my history, feeling the snippets of my history these books evoke.  Getting rid of that copy of James Lileks’ “Notes From A Nervous Man” isn’t just jettisoning some random book – it’s potentially losing that feeling I had when I was a clerk at Borders Books and they put me in charge of the humor section and James was the pride of the first obscure book I found that I fell in love with, and recommended, and gave myself a stamp of erudition.

I’m terrified of losing that.

So I do purge my bookshelves.  I got rid of about three shelves’ worth of books yesterday, and I gave some of them to good homes with the friends who came to our Oscar party, which made me happy.  Books should be loved.

But it is a source of conflict with my wife, I know.  She’d prefer an empty home, free of knickknacks.  She often jokes that she wants so few possessions she can pack them all into a van and just leave with an afternoon’s notice.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a valid approach.

Yet for me?  With my foggy ideas of my own past?  I fear leaving that behind would set me adrift in some fundamental way.  I know it has happened time and time again to people – my heart quails whenever I see refugees forced to leave their homeland behind – but for me, my possessions help anchor me to who I am because my brain is not up to the challenge.

Pick a book.  There’s a part of me in there.  I know it’s foolish, needing so many.

But it’s who I am.  It is, quite literally, who I am.

3 Comments

  1. Vesta
    Mar 5, 2018

    “Some of these things aren’t prizes, Mark realized. They are lessons.
    …He rubbed his face wearily. [Miles is] not a man, he’s a mob.”
    Mirror Dance, LM Bujold

  2. Molly Black
    Mar 6, 2018

    This feels like me in a nutshell. Right down to your mention of “foggy ideas of” your past. My memories are so buried that I need a physical latch to bind me to them and bring them up to share with others.

  3. Halo
    Mar 28, 2018

    Crumbs. This made me realise something… I always thought I hoarded things because they held memories, and that’s true of some things, but actually I hoard most things because they hold possibilities… The possibility of adventure, or something to make, write, learn… Getting rid of anything feels like closing doors to the future and then I feel trapped. (Relative poverty doesn’t help with this, I feel like I might *need* such-and-such and not be able to afford it in the future… Regardless of its actual usefulness!)

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