A Private Mania

diceUp until he died, Cally’s uncle lived in Campus View, a neighborhood just north of the university where rows of aging brownstones once brought top dollar. His parents moved there after the war when it was a working class neighborhood; after they died, the house became his. From the outside, Number 15392 was an ordinary building. Inside, it was filled with books from floor to ceiling.

There is an actual disorder called bibliomania – book hoarding. To Cally, having lots of books didn’t seem so strange. Her own house had book cases in every room, and sometimes books piled up next to her bed or on the coffee table. Eventually her mother would gather them all up and re-shelve each one.

She admired her uncle. In her eyes it was a great achievement to have so many books that you had to stack them in every room. At one time there was a couch in the living room; now there was only a chair and a lamp. On the chair was another pile of books, which he set on the floor when he wanted to read. There were books on the dining room table, in the antique china cabinet that had once housed his mother’s china, even in the bathroom. One entire bedroom was filled with bookshelves and stacks of books. You could walk between the stacks as if the paths were streets in a small city of books.

When he died, Cally’s father donated them all to the university – over 20,000 books.

The compulsion to collect large quantities of things is something Cally understands well, but can’t explain. She has plenty of books, but that is not her compulsion. Her hoard consists of dice, nested dolls, corks from wine bottles, foreign coins, buttons, bracelets, colored pencils, dictionaries, boxes and dominoes. In August she starts stockpiling school supplies. Before Christmas she buys up quantities of yarn. Once she crocheted a red scarf. It was so easy that she made another one, black. Blue is a useful color, so she made that one next. In all, she made eleven scarves. When spring came, she finally stopped.

Most people collect something. A few carry it to an extreme; the hoard begins to make demands and the owner becomes more and more obsessive. It is probably a form of OCD, Cally thinks, an inability to stop repeating a pattern of behavior. She sees this in herself, but rationalizes: there are much worse things than having thousands of dice. Furthermore, people always know what to bring her when they go on trips. Japanese dice, German dice, African bracelets, Russian dolls.

There is a fear of loss. Sometimes Cally grieves for things she can’t find – her tarot cards, the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Having multiples is a way to ward off sadness: if you have hundreds of dice, losing a few isn’t so bad.

Collecting is a way of holding on to something – an event, a person, a place. A jar of coins or a shelf of plates is a tangible, quantifiable representation of an experience. It says, “Here is my life.”

Cally won’t stop collecting things. She has no trouble throwing away clothes and giving away books, so she doesn’t consider herself quite deranged. Not yet. It isn’t a sickness to want to remember.

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