05 April 2010

Are You Still Crazy if It's Just Books?

photo from Hoarding Web siteLast night we watched a reality show called “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” the TLC network's answer to a similarly named show (“Hoarders”) on A&E. “Watched” may be too mild a term. It was like a train wreck; you couldn't look away. Last night’s episode featured two very nice women, one in New York City and the other in Omaha, who just happen to be mentally ill. I want to emphasize that; this was a show about crazy people. So for years their families had watched them slowly fill up their apartment (NYC) and houses (Omaha—she had bought the house next door as a storage closet when her own got too full) with useless junk, and, as with most families of mentally ill people, had been helpless to stop them. Both women were so rational, so competent, so ordinary ... until you looked in their homes.

It felt odd to be watching this particular show in what, 16 years ago, my husband's family dubbed “the Reader's Digest room.” That was the year we bought the house from a relative's estate, and, while I wouldn't go so far as to label this relative “crazy,” his was definitely a hoarder’s house. We have pictures: narrow paths in the living room and dining room between stacks of magazines; the kitchen window plastered with Chiquita stickers from about 20 years of banana consumption; the attic, basement and garage packed with scraps of wood and cans of paint from what amounted to a home carpentry business.

We also have samples of the beautiful things he built—elaborate birdhouses, hand-bent waterskis with about 20 coats of varnish—but he considered these too ordinary to give as gifts. Instead, for Christmas and birthdays, he collected items from a Minnesota phenomenon called the Fingerhut catalog. This was a credit-card company masquerading as a “collectables” gallery; the actual price of the (let's say) plastic clock would be obscured by a label advertising the low, low payment plan of $3.99/month. (I was surprised to learn, from a quick Google search, that Fingerhut still exists. I am not going to provide a link.) Which is why the room next to what is now our TV room was once “the Fingerhut room.” The present-day TV room was, by contrast, full of boxes of books from the Reader’s Digest folks, all purchased on credit in an attempt to increase his odds of winning the famous sweepstakes.

Yes, the irony of a room full of condensed books was not lost on us.

I doubt whether anything in either room was ever paid in full. If you add it all up, he probably did win the sweepstakes, sort of.

I have forgotten the number of 40-yard dumpsters that it took to get everything clear: seven? twelve? thirty-six? So the house we live in today is a bit different from the one we bought. But, as we watched this show, we realized it was not quite different enough for comfort. The hoarding gene may be mostly dormant, but it's definitely there—in both me and my husband. And where it manifests itself most is in books.

There are two bookshelves in the former Reader’s Digest room, and another one right outside the door in the hall. The Fingerhut room (now a guest room) has only one, but our bedroom has three, and that's only if you don't count the nightstands. Downstairs, the living room has one wall of built-in bookshelves and a freestanding one by the stairs. Which wouldn't be so bad if most of the horizontal surfaces weren't occupied by more books waiting for a home.flylady-cartoon

And this is after a several-years’ campaign, aided by the incomparable Flylady, to declutter my life. I think we're definitely overdue for a “room rescue” here.

But first, I need to get to a bookstore and buy a copy of The Nine Tailors. I just read about this Dorothy Sayers classic in P.D. James’ book, Talking About Detective Fiction, and for some reason I don't own it. Can you imagine?


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