The following is a post by Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:
The TV show Hoarders has brought a good deal of attention to what happens when our instinct to accumulate runs out of control; an inability to discard things when we are supposed to be done with them can ruin a hard drive, a book project, a house, a life.
In strictly literary terms, as long as the capacity to select and winnow remains, the accumulation of things can be a gift (the lists in Moby Dick, Homer’s catalog of ships, James Boswell’s lifelong practice of recording and storing the sayings of great men). But there is always the risk, with books like Richardson’s Clarissa or (in a very different vein) George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels, either that the writing will proliferate to a volume that readers are unwilling to tolerate (Richardson) or that it will extend over a duration that creates a huge amount of frustration in readers hungry for the next installment (Martin). All of which is to say that hoarding seems to me one of the great literary topics of our time: I want to read a good nonfiction book about it, something roughly akin to Alice Flaherty’s fantastic account of hypergraphia in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.
For now, though, a list of five of my favorite books about hoarding:
Randy G. Frost and Gail Steketee, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
An essential guide to the disorder. Not at the literary level of Oliver Sacks, but then what is? Grippingly readable, full of fascinating observations and insights. Among other things, it caused me to look back on the house of family friends in childhood, a house that was astonishingly messy, and say, “Oh, that wasn’t ordinary mess, that was hoarding before there was really a name for it!” Full of useful suggestions and resources if you or someone you know is in need of help for hoarding or a related syndrome.
Jessie Sholl, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding
A compelling memoir about what it means to be the adult child of a parent whose hoarding makes her house uninhabitable. Thoughtful, well-written, full of empathy.
Sara Ryan and Carla Speed O’Neill, Bad Houses
A brilliant graphic novel with a puzzle-like structure, this coming-of-age story considers the beauties and terrors of the estate sale, and more particularly what it lets us understand about people and their relationship with the objects that fill up their houses.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, vol. 1
There are other reasons to read Knausgaard, of course, but in addition to his startling reconfiguration of the relationship between experience and narration and his extraordinary way with sentences, he also gives us one of the best literary depictions I know of how the thing we call hoarding can destroy a lived environment.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Many of the characters in this novel suffer from one kind of cognitive or psychological disorder or another; the novel as a whole offers some kind of a theory of disorders of accumulation, and the writing speaks to that in all sorts of ways. But the scenes that describe something closest to what we would now call hoarding are those set in Krook’s rag-and-bone shop.