Jessie Sholl

Dirty Secret

No, You Are Not A Book Hoarder

Making light of hoarding -- or any mental illness -- is disrespectful.

Posted Mar 28, 2011

I was already doing research for a story I hoped to write about book hoarding and now seem to have missed the boat, but that's not the only reason I'm irritated by this National Post essay, Confessions of a Book Hoarder. Sure, it's meant to be funny -- hoarding, that's hi-lar-i-ous!! -- but I find it flippant and smirky.

Just because you have a lot of books, that doesn't mean you're a bibliomaniac. Can you walk through

A Manhattan park, named for the famous hoarding Collyer brothers.

A Manhattan park, named for the famous hoarding Collyer brothers.

the room in which your books are stored? Have you depleted any of your life savings on these books? Do you hide when the doorbell rings or not allow a plumber into your home when your sink is clogged?

Since my memoir came out, numerous people have confessed to me that they think they're hoarders, too (almost as many as have said, "Make sure your mom only gets one copy!"). Here's the thing: You might have a cluttered garage, but that doesn't mean you're a hoarder. Similarly, you might have packed bookcases and, yes, too many books, but that doesn't mean you're a book hoarder. If I skipped lunch one day, or two, or three, would that suddenly make me anorexic? If I labeled myself as such, I'd surely be accused of being insensitive to those who truly have a mental illness -- and rightly so.

I'm not saying that book hoarding doesn't happen. Two cases illustrated in the hefty and illuminating A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes include a former Spanish monk named Don Vincente, who, in the 1830s committed at least eight murders in his quest for rare and valuable texts. And in 1940, the mother of Ralph Ellis Jr. had her son locked away in a sanitarium for fear that he'd burn through the entire family fortune on his obsession: bird books, of which he'd already amassed 65,000.

But carelessly tossing the label of hoarder around, as the National Post essay does, is disrespectful to hoarders and those affected by the disorder. I wondered though, if it was just me. Was I being overly sensitive? I decided to ask Donna Austin, who founded the Children of Hoarders website and online support group in 2006, what she thought.

"Up until the last few years, it was so exasperating to try and describe my mother's compulsive hoarding behavior to those who didn't have a clue," Austin wrote via email. "And it was especially deflating when my outpourings were met with some comment like, ‘Joe down the street is a hoarder! He has like three boxes of old Playboys in his garage!' (Oh shut up, Joe is fine.) Or, ‘Oh, I'm the worst hoarder in the world! Look, [junk drawer glides opens with ease] I must have 100 Monopoly pieces in here!' (Puhleeze, you didn't need a crowbar to open the drawer.) Those sorts of comments -- innocent as they were -- minimized my experience as a person who grew up in a hoarder's home in an unintentional, but nevertheless painful to me, way."

She added, "Today, thanks to the television programs about hoarding, that minimizing doesn't happen nearly as often as it used to. I'm grateful for that. Perhaps all this exposure will help an anonymous seatmate, hairdresser, or neighbor pause before making a casual 'hoarder comparison' and allow a child of a hoarder out there to simply feel heard."

Exactly. And no one's arguing that the term hoarding is off limits. Or that you can't joke about hoarding, ever. I've seen some funny sketches, for example this one from the Onion: How Will the End of Print Journalism Affect Old Loons Who Hoard Newspapers? Maybe the line between harmless humor and disrespectful minimization of a mental illness is similar to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography -- you know it when you see it. Or maybe it's simply keeping in mind that common expression: Language matters.

What do you think? As always, I welcome comments. You can also read my blog at or follow me on Twitter: jessie_sholl.

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