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I've recently become a fan of the A&E show Hoarders. Never much for reality TV, the first time I saw the show I thought it was profiting on people's tragedies. But I have since figured out that the show is there to help both its subjects and its audience. All the interventions I've seen have been fairly successful. People's homes get cleaned out, they get reconnected with family and friends, and they start the difficult process of getting mental health treatment. The show has helped me think more clearly about the stuff I own and I'd like to explain how.

First let me stipulate: I am not a hoarder. A clinical definition can be found here. But I do think everyone faces a challenge in how they manage their relationship with the stuff they own. In my case I committed what I coined micro-hoarding. A micro-hoard is an over-accumulation of some class of thing. It doesn't complicate your life at large but it does complicate enjoyment of that thing. More about things past the orange thing.

There's nothing obsessive or compulsive about micro-hoarding. It truly is a simple over accumulation that happens innocently given enough time. But there is some of the same fear of facing the problem and inability to let stuff go. Ultimately the micro-hoard grows large enough to damage the enjoyment the person gets from the thing being over accumulated.

An example could be a passionate home cook who, in time, buys so many pots, pans, bowls, spoons, appliances etc. that their desire to be ready for any contingency has now frustrated their ability to cook basic meals. They can't find stuff when they need it. They use too many things prepping a meal because they have just the perfect thing for every task. Cleanup becomes a nightmare. Like too many cooks, too much stuff can take the joy right out of a kitchen. A key question becomes: do you own the stuff or does the stuff own you?

For those who haven't seen Hoarders, it is reality TV focused on compulsive hoarders. These are people who so over accumulate a huge variety of things that they literally can barely walk through their own houses. Some cases are of people who seem to have lost their ability to throw out trash. Empty soda bottles, food containers, pet feces, you name it pile so high it covers everything including the kitchen sink. Other cases are people who compulsively buy stuff to bring home and put somewhere. They think all of it is valuable even though it sits buried under all the stuff they've bought since then that that thought was valuable. These people often incur huge credit card debt to keep feeding their hoard.

Ultimately there is some situation that brings about the need for intervention. Houses crammed with so much disorganized stuff are fire hazards. Often it is a city inspector that issues a warning: clean up or lose the house. I saw one where it was the children. If you're a hoarder, you can't provide a safe, functional home for your children. When you get caught you lose your kids to Child Protective Services. Child endangerment, it's very serious. That's how bad this can get.

In my case it's only a micro-hoard and the category is books. If you like to read and like the feel of a nice heavy hardbound tome, chances are at some point you will have too many of them. There are not only the Amazon's trying push pulp cheap, there are the brick and mortar booksellers usually with tables full of discounted items not to mention the used books stores with the detritus of every book collector who has ever existed. So much knowledge out there, so many ways to expand your mind.

To fit the definition, I must observe that the over-abundance of books has interfered with my ability to enjoy them. I don't know where to begin. Should I read that book I purchased five years ago with such good intentions? Wait, shouldn't I read the book I got five months ago, wouldn't that be more relevant? There's that book that I should have read for that college course and didn't. I've stalled on buying anything new, reading anything and instead of looking at my bookshelf with pride it seems to stare back at me and hiss. Defeated, I do most of my reading online now, just simple blog posts and news articles. I need to get back to books because that's what ignites the most passion for knowledge and critical thinking in me.

The tendency toward keeping every book that has ever been published is a natural learned one. We were taught that we would have had a moon landing hundreds of years earlier had not the Library at Alexandria been turned to toast. Whether you've read your Bradbury or not, I think we are all familiar with the dystopias linked to book burning. Yet I have to be realistic. It is not my job to preserve any and all knowledge that comes my way in the event that humanity should again thrust itself into a dark age. That is a collective effort and I can only contribute to that in proportion to what I am able.

I live in a not tiny yet small condominium. While true everywhere, especially here there is a premium on clean uncluttered living space. I had two book cases. One, an antique lawyer bookcase. That's the kind with the lift-up glass doors. It's amazing, I love it. The other, a cheap, tall Ikea thing. Over the years, I had moved the Ikea case to three different places in the condo. It seemed to ruin the aesthetic wherever it was placed. Every summer my condo board arranges to have one of those construction site size trash bins on premises for one week. If you need to get rid of something big, this is your opportunity. This summer I broke down the Ikea and trashed it.

The Ikea bookcase was filled with my collection of less than interesting books. Old textbooks from grad school, volumes acquired in airport magazine kiosks barely read, literature from college classes; almost every title in there simply served no purpose anymore. I was using the nice lawyer book case for my important books. Or so I thought.

The ugly case was gone, yet the books remained. I had them stacked against the wall waiting for me to disposition. One, two, three, four, finally five months went by before I would deign to take on the task. The long delay was the result of the anxiety, indecision and inability to do what I knew had to be done. What really lit a fire under my pants was watching a four episode marathon of Hoarders. The most important part was seeing just how delusional the hoarder's "keep" rationalizations are. It's almost like watching someone in an abusive relationship. The abuser in this case is their stuff. The abused seems to be able to think of every conceivable yet invalid reason to stay in the relationship.

Inspired by the show, I set out to finish the task I had started months ago and face my fear of letting books go. I saw that I was rationalizing keeping my books the same way the hoarders were rationalizing keeping their stuff. But what is so disturbing about the hoarders is that they struggle to see the fact that their lives and relationships are more important than their stuff. Breakthroughs are made only when they grasp the true dilemma and choose life, family, friends and professional help over their stuff. The psychologists and de-hoarding specialists doing the intervention try to boil the keep vs. discard decision down to that fundamental choice. That sort of direct thinking is what I've been able to bring to my micro-hoard.

Let me give an example. Shotwell, James T. (ed.), Governments of Continental Europe, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1940. I sort of remember buying this. I think it was from a hybrid thrift-antique store in Woodland, California about 14 years ago. It was three dollars, half off the six listed on the inside cover. On the plus side: big 1000 page hardbound book, now over seventy years old, subject is the development of the various European political systems in place right on the eve of World War II. On the minus side: dreary academic text, I've had 14 years to read it and have only occasionally picked it up to read a few random pages. It's not going to happen with me and this book. It has no financial value whatsoever. Dispostion: dispose of.

This is a case of holding onto something that is useless to me and of no apparent value to anyone else. There is always the sentimental journey of thinking of the happy times when and where I bought it. For someone who likes to read and considers himself somewhat intellectual there is always the potential of a journey reading the whole text. And it gives rise to the armchair antiquarian in me. But realistically, no. I only have so much bookshelf space and this is preventing a volume more suited to my tastes from occupying it.

This book was actually on my lawyer bookcase which should only be holding the good stuff. I didn't need to dispose of every book from the Ikea case. Yet keeping anything meant I had to look to the lawyer bookcase to find room. Ultimately since I want to economize on space I want to maximize the value of it. That means whatever makes it into that space should be something I truly find valuable. Some academic text no one has ever heard of that I picked up on a whim fifteen years ago for three dollars that I'll never read should not make the cut.

Still, how to get rid of a book like this? I could donate it to the library. Yet I've seen more books like this come out of libraries to be sold to the public than go into them. There's always another crop of books like this being published and libraries need to stay more current than 1940. I could try to sell it. Someone is actually doing that on Amazon right now. Whatever few dollars I might get if it did sell is not at all worth the hassle. I could try to hoist it off on a used bookstore. I've brought some of my less loved books to a nearby used bookstore. The most the proprietor will give me is terse trade value, no cash. It would slow my effort if I had to bring back new acquisitions every time I was getting rid of old ones. Bartering is great but it is not what I need in this situation.

The only course left is: pulp it. Pulping is the trade term for sending unsold copies of a publishing run to the paper recycler. It happens. A publisher thinks a certain volume will sell about so many copies. Orders them from the printer. The book's actual sales bomb and he's left with pallets full of worthless books covered in shrink-wrap. Best not to dwell. Cut your losses, make the best of the paper by recycling it. Both the publisher and paper move on to the next potential best seller. Win some, lose some.

Governments of Continental Europe wasn't exactly a best seller in its day. I'm guessing this isn't the first copy to be pulped. Not a bad run though. It took seventy-three years to get this copy to the shredder. Many people don't live as long. That's really the point, right? Stuff, things, possessions, none of it matters more than life itself and the ability to enjoy it. If it was a choice between taking the next breath or keeping some item in my possession, I wouldn't need to pour all this thought into it. The fucking thing would be gone and I'd be more than happy to keep my life.

This one book has now made it to the recycling bin. So many more to follow.

Micro-hoarding does not threaten to inflict homelessness, bankruptcy, criminal charges nor the like. But is does smother an activity that enhances my life experience. Ultimately I have to weigh the chance of getting my reading mojo back against the utility of holding onto any particular volume. There really isn't that much to think about, is there?

Originally posted to Buffalo Road on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 04:26 PM PST.

Also republished by Personal Storytellers and Community Spotlight.

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