There is nothing like finding a moldy book, especially if it is a book that you think you might be interested in. Well, today I open with this fine photographic ensemble with some images of the rotting cover of The Encyclopedia of Jazz. Normally, I'd find this sort of thing anathema, simply repulsive (well, I still do!), but for the sake of this exposition, I feel the necessity to share with you kind readers something rather extraordinary. I must admit that this was one of the most shocking book-related experiences I've come across, partly because it was so unexpected, partly because of its proximity to where I live, but mostly because of the extreme living conditions to which I found myself witnessing. The dying and decaying books that I picture here in trash heaps, bags, and other locations were already left for an unseemly end. It was humid and rainy, and the contents of the house I was about to enter were already being dislodged.
Let me begin with how this story unfolded. Without providing the personal details, in order to keep such characters anonymous, I will only say that someone in my neighborhood died, and left their home to be cleaned out and its contents sold. The "cleaner-outer" asked me, as a library professional and "knower" of books, if I could come and take a look at the books in this person's house, to see what they were worth (in order to put them up for sale), if anything. I agreed, of course, both out of a general sense of obligation, and curiosity. For, as you all can guess, I'm always curious about looking at new (or in this case, old) books. Little, very little did I know that what I was about to witness was a veritable scene out of the new television series "Hoarders." For those of you who don't know, Hoarders is more than just a (reality) TV show, it is a phenomenon. And what is so striking about this show is not just that there are people in this country (and presumably this world), who live in utter filth and clutter, but hoards (sorry!) of them! They live above and below piles of trash, garbage, and as viewers of this ghastly show may see in one case, used adult diapers.
The other and perhaps more powerful thing about "Hoarders" has to do with the potency of its images and message. You see, when the show premiered (or at least became popular), there was a nationwide surge in the sense of need to purge one's household, whether needed or not. People did not want to be associated with or even be remotely considered or perceived of as "hoardering" or "being a hoarder." Are you a hoarder? Surely an interesting phenomenon. Now before I even went inside this home, I found that so many items were being piled up and tossed out in the back yard. Such items as this old suitcase marked "Old Letters" and "Accounts." Who knows what was in it specifically...whose old letters? to or from whom? what they were about? There is, of course, a certain sadness that goes along with all this and one wonders why some people don't make better provisions about their property before they move on to the next world. The person cleaning out the house told me that in the basement there were several old suitcases like this, filled with love letters of the two former inhabitants--from when the husband was in the service during WWII. They wrote to each other faithfully and constantly. Now, both gone, the letters languish in forgotten dust. The person cleaning said she didn't know what to do with them.
Now let us be clear: just because you have a lot of books doesn't make you a hoarder..., or does it? We might think back to the grand "book" of books in the 20th century, Elias Canetti's Auto-dea-Fe about a famed and rather mad sinologist and consummate book collector (the character collected tens of thousands of books); this character also talked to his books and envisioned them as humans in very poetic and anthropomorphic dreams. There are people with many, many books, who keep them neatly, rather than in piles of their own messiness and madness. If you have a nice library, then fine. And just because you have borrowed a fair number of books from the library also does NOT "a hoarder you make!" People who enjoy books or like books, also have affections for books and their contents. We borrow books. Someone recently asked me why I had so many books out of from the University library. Two others in the conversation said: "well, how many do you have out." Sheepishly, I said "35." "That's it!!?" they both responded in disbelief. I felt better.
There was a time when I would have more than 200 books out; when I was doing a paper or researching something or studying for exams. Sometimes you just need to take books out. And the odd thing is, about the Regenstein library of the University of Chicago, that in my nearly ten years here in this community and as a borrower in the University's library system, I've almost never had one of my books recalled--maybe one, but one only. That is a stunning sociological statement, I think, regarding this highly read and bibliocentric culture of Hyde Park. One would think there would be overlap. Of course, there are probably a dozen reasons for this, including: students wanting their own books would rather buy them than borrow them; if students can't find material on the shelves, they look elsewhere, buy it, or forget about it; or, perhaps, the University caters to such a highly specialized sort of person that very few subjects or topics overlap, and the need to do book recalls is not there. This would certainly be an interesting topic to research further.
Now that we have satisfactorily digressed into the hoarding phenomenon, let us take a look at what I actually saw and found. Beside this primitive statuette, which sat stoically in the messy and weary garden out back, now being joined by piles and heaps of "old stuff," there was the inside, which struck me with great awe and astonishment.
Though I did not photograph the upstairs, it was in that sector of the home that the piles of debris from hoarding were most severe. In fact, one room itself, was piled completely to the ceiling, with "stuff" occupying nearly every square inch. I could not believe my eyes.
Granted, some of this material had been moved, but for the most part, the scenery had not changed much since the cleaners had come in. Upstairs, as I just mentioned, was so filled with materials that the downstairs had to be fitted with special living equipment for the former tenant. Sleeping in a bedroom was no longer possible and had to be done on the ground floor.
Books, books...everywhere! There were many books. Upstairs there were the books, which I had taken a look at and found to be effectively worthless. They were crumbly paperbacks dating from the 1950s through the 1970s. They had no value save for their use as recycled matter. Now you know me as one who is passionate about books, but these were shameful examples of the publishing industry's deteriorated pulp-book standards. The kind of yellow paged dryness that is so brittle that you cannot even finish the book, because it has fallen apart midway through your read!
I did spy some curiosities among the bunches and piles. I gave up on the second floor's holdings. The yellow pulp books weren't even nicely arranged and had been squashed into piles and behind things. I saw a few select larger tomes, some William L. Shirer histories, but they too were tattered, neglected, abused in their stations. There was this (above), for example, "The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch" by Lewis Carroll.
And I know some people are a bit odd, but to put a book in bondage!? This movie trivia book apparently had some sort of strange relationship with its owners, because, as you can see, it was bound by its former reader in a telephone cord! Surely, this is one of the oddest sights I've seen regarding a book. No respect, indeed!
Since these good folks, who once owned this home, were inclined toward art and all of its illustrious beauties and trappings, I was able to find many fine books on art and travel. I will admit that I am a person who buys books when I travel. In fact, I am a consummate book-travel-buyer (i.e. I must buy a book when I travel). For me, my souvenir, my memory of travels comes from securing some piece of written history, art, culture. Mostly because I want to know about the people and their past when I visit a place. A little trinket or model of the Eiffel Tower is not going to do that for me. I'm not satisfied by 4th rate crafts made in China for croissant-chewing tourist on the Champs Elysees! Let me learn about flaneurs in Paris or writers from Bulgaria or the history of a little street in Trieste...those are the interesting artifacts of travel! Though, I do hope that one day, whenever my days are no more on this earth, that my books have not fallen into rummage sale bags, as a result of compulsive hoarding and uncontrollable tea drinking in some mad dotage; rather, I hope that my books will have been taken care of well, even given to the right places and people, and of course, those library books finally returned. But plan accordingly, my friends, fight those hoarding instincts, and remember: if you ever have a desire to wrap your books in telephone wire, take a deep breath, and reconsider. Come to think of it though, this may be an impossible venture in our future: the telephone wire is really dead. Not the book.