I have a friend who is a hoarder. He owns somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000 books, along with numerous DVDs and videos. He’s in his seventies, so this represents a lifetime of collecting. His house is jammed full of the things, along with a large storage shed in his back yard, not to mention two off-site storage units. His wife is furious, and he is slowly coming to the painful realization that a lifelong dream of his — that he could merrily collect books and spend his retirement years reading them — is nothing more than the most ghostly of fantasies. He’s retired now, and he’s too overwhelmed to read any of his books (most of them he has no idea where they are). At this point, never mind reading them; he’ll be doing well just to sort through them.
His wife is demanding that he winnow his collection by 95%. That will still leave him over a thousand books — which means, if he reads two books a week, he’d still have a decade’s worth of reading material.
I’ve offered to help him. This is dangerous stuff, because I have a bit of the hoarder in me. I’ll be tempted to want to buy some of his books from him. But the truth is, my hoard at age 50 is probably not too different from what his hoard looked like when he was my age. So I have two reasons for wanting to help him: first, because he’s my friend and I’d like to see him dig out from his mess; but more importantly, because I want to face the hoarder in me (of course, my friend may well need professional counseling before this is through, and I may have to be the one to tell him that this is necessary).
The problem with hoarding is this: the bigger one’s collection (of anything, not just books), becomes, the more time is spent managing the collection rather than simply enjoying it. I probably have somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred books. Even with that relatively modest sized library (at least, modest compared to my friend’s holdings!), it’s amazing how much time I can spend trying to find a book that’s misplaced, or organizing my bookshelves, or purging my library (which I do on occasion, given how many new books I acquire, both in terms of purchases I make for my own research, and the relentless parade of complimentary review books that publishers send me, hoping that they’ll get mentioned on this blog). I probably spend as much time fussing over my “little” hoard as I do actually reading books. Getting to know my friend, and seeing his out-of-control hoard, is something of a wake-up call for me. If I don’t make the right choices today, I could end up like him in 25 years.
Academics, booksellers, writers, amateur philosophers and theologians… I know a lot of people who have book collections larger than my own, and who feel that their profession or avocation requires this of them. For years, I would have “library envy” whenever I met someone who had a more impressive catalog than mine. But seeing the chaos that has overtaken my friend’s life, and recognizing that the seeds of such a fate lie within my own restless heart, has given me pause to consider if, when it comes to a personal library, maybe (like so many other dimensions of life) smaller really is better. Okay, so maybe a thousand books is not unreasonable for a middle-class American who is a professional writer. But does my library ever need to get any larger than that? I don’t think so. Which means that as new books come in, old books need to go. Books that I’ve read and have no desire to re-read, or don’t expect to use for research. Review books that I’m not interested in. Books that were acquired for a project that is now complete. And, increasingly, books that I may need for reference purposes, but can own electronically (yes, that’s a dangerous loophole: I’m only saying 1000 hard copy books. But I’ve come to realize that I just don’t enjoy reading ebooks, so I only own them for reference purposes — after all, it’s easier to find a specific word or phrase using Kindle’s search function than by flipping through pages of a paper text).
Hoarding is related to anxiety. For years, I was loathe to let go of any book that was out of print or generally difficult to find. I still have a significant number of books (hardcover editions of the Classics of Western Spirituality, or my hardcover books by Merton and Underhill) that I simply cannot imagine letting go of, precisely because they would be difficult and expensive to replace. Every time I load a box to go to the used bookstore, a little voice insists, “But what if you find out you need this or that book the next time you sit down to write?” I firmly remind this inner doubter that it’s better to get rid of 100 unwanted books even if I eventually re-acquire 2 or 3 of them, than to do nothing… and end up like my hapless friend.
So the opposite of hoarding, ironically enough, is trust — and faith. Trust that I’ll always have, or be able to locate, whatever books I need, both to enjoy reading and to complete the work I want to do. Faith that a small, carefully chosen collection of books is far more useful than a large, unwieldy hoard. And faith that at this stage of my life I need to be doing more praying and meditating, and less reading anyway!
So , dear reader, pray for my friend, that he can find the inner strength (and faith and trust) to do the hard work of letting go of some 24,000 books (don’t worry, if we decide to have a monster yard sale, I’ll post word of it on this blog). Pray for me, that I can be clear about setting boundaries around my own nascent urge to hoard — and spend less time fussing about books, and more time reading (or praying or meditating). And if you are a book hoarder, I invite you to join us on this adventure of owning less stuff and appreciating the spirituality of letting go.