Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Book Lovers, Beware!

Interior of Collyer brothers' home, 1947
Last night's episode of "Hoarders" on A&E featured a Chicago couple so fond of books, they'd managed to accumulate hundreds of thousands of volumes (by one estimate, possibly more than 500k). Over the course of 40 years, their home had turned into a warren of floor-to-ceiling stacks and shelves, and aisles so narrow, an adult had to ease sideways down each one. Landslides often occurred -- tumbling towers of tomes that could easily bury or at least brain a person.

People (I wanted to scream at the TV), haven't you heard of e-books? And I hugged my Kindle.

This show dovetailed with a nonfiction piece I happen to be reading (thanks again for the tip, Val!) Ghosty Men is about the legendary Collyer brothers, a pair of eccentrics who literally hoarded themselves to death in their once-mansion-like Harlem brownstone. (Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow is a fictionalized version of their story.) Sad to say, even e-books wouldn't have saved these guys.


The obsessive-compulsive disorder that is hoarding has always fascinated me. I've known people with this disease and I've seen, firsthand, the results of it. As much as I recoil from clutter-gone-wild, I understand the allure of frenetic collecting. Hardcover books, especially old ones, have always been a Siren song to me. The same is true of vintage Christmas decorations and folk art. If life hadn't staged multiple interventions and regularly forced me to rid myself of possessions, my collecting could easily have gotten out of hand.


So, to reinforce this cautionary tale and to celebrate Read an E-book Week, here are more period photos of the Collyer brothers' residence. (And you know what? As foul as this place was, and as tragic as Homer's and Langley's fate, I still find myself zeroing in on all the antiques and feeling covetous!)

Junk removal begins.

Check out the windows!

Can you make out the body on the sea of garbage? That's Langley, crushed and rat-gnawed. By the time he was "unearthed,"  he'd been dead over a month. Homer, who was blind and totally dependent on his brother, died of starvation shortly thereafter, also in a bunker of trash. 

15 comments:

Chris said...

Ack!! That's so scary...

Love you, ebooks...

Chris said...

Well, darn it - it won't let me even subscribe to the comments feed, so I'm out of luck...

Val Kovalin said...

Glad you're enjoying Ghosty Men! And I know what you mean about the urge to collect folk art. :)

K. Z. Snow said...

I adore folk art! We have a handmade papier mache mask (?) of some antlered creature hanging above the couch, ugly jugs on a bookcase, various amateur paintings, pottery, and woodcarvings. If I caved in to this passion, we'd have a lot more! :-) (I've always wanted a collection of Mexican Day of the Dead figures. *sigh*)

Dang it, now why did you get me started? ;-)

Cole said...

You've given me nightmares!!

K. Z. Snow said...

Heya, Cole! It is horrific, isn't it?

Kris said...

Is it bad that those photos have me wondering about all the treasures you could find in there?

K. Z. Snow said...

I feel exactly the same way, Kris! And y'know what? After the "good" stuff (by 1947 standards) was culled out, it netted less than $2,000 at auction.

Tam said...

Hoarding is like a train wreck, fascinating to look at, not something I'd want to be in.

I'm not a collector, but I like things, too much. I'm striving to live a life of sparceness. Next time I move, I'm taking only the basics with me. I was in the Christmas store here in San Francisco and they had a section for Halloween and I thought "Oh, I love that, and that and that." And then I thought, and what the hell would I do with it? Store it in the basement except for those 2 weeks a year I drag it out and I have a box of Halloween decorations I can't be bothered to drag out now. But I'm not emotionally invested in much of my stuff. I would have no problem giving most of it away and likely will.

To die in your own hoard though, that is sad and I can see a few of those extreme cases on hoarders getting there. Most of those hoards are so full of mold and so heavy that anything of value has been trampled on or damaged by water/mold/cold/heat. AT one point it was of use, now it's just trash which is sad.

Pender Mackie said...

I know it's wrong, but when I look at those photos I want to root through all the junk to see if I can find any treasures. (I'm sure one whiff of the place would change my mind though.)

K. Z. Snow said...

Circumstances pretty much stripped me of any hoarding tendencies, Tam. I've had to get rid of so much stuff so often (especially after my divorce -- by far the most painful purge), I do now embrace the "living sparely" philosophy.

Honestly, I think hoarders need to be subjected to that kind of treatment -- "Hanging on is not an option; this is something you MUST DO and NOW! -- instead of all the pampering and pussyfooting.

K. Z. Snow said...

There apparently were lots of treasures, Pender -- at least, that's how we'd see the items now (antiques upon antiques!) -- but I have no idea what kind of shape they were in. And you're right about the smell. Reports indicate the clean-up crews couldn't stand being in the place for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Nearly 150 tons of stuff were removed from the building's several floors. Rodents were everywhere, not to mention dust, cobwebs, mold, rotten food, and urine and excrement. And, of course, one of the brothers had lain dead in there for over a month.

I know what you mean, though. When I first the photos, I thought the same thing!

Chris said...

Blogger, why did you tell me you couldn't subscribe me to the comments and then... subscribe me to the comments?!

K. Z. Snow said...

I AM NOT AUTHORIZED TO RESPOND ON BLOGGER'S BEHALF.

:)

Chris said...

Hmph.

;)