Hoarding. The word refers to an excessive need to stockpile something, usually food, for example during times of scarcity.
In our modern consumerist culture, hoarding has become a source of entertainment. Or worse.
The first – and only – time I watched an episode of “Hoarders”, I turned the TV off after about 10 minutes. I’m not a big fan of squalor and mess, so I found it painful to look at the piles of trash in the corners and the filthy kitchen, where no room remained for the common tasks of cooking. Cockroaches and mice racing through the house didn’t help matters either.
Yet, when it comes to books, and cookbooks in particular, some might call me a hoarder. A kinder, possibly more apt word might be bibliophile, though. But “collector” would also suit just fine.
How did I become a bibliophile, morphing into a collector verging on hoarder?
I remember the moment when the book collecting bug first bit me.
My father traveled frequently for his job as a plant pathologist for the USDA. For some reason, he always came home with a small gift for each of us four kids. On one trip, for me he found a book by Bruno Frost, A Child’s Book of Jungle Animals (1954). I still have the book, without its cover, pages tattered and stained, packed away with many other mementos.
I loved Jungle Animals, with its colorful illustrations, hinting of a larger, more exotic world, all so tantalizing to a little girl living in a small, landlocked town in eastern Washington state. At the time Daddy gave me the book, I still couldn’t read. That didn’t stop me from pouring over the book again and again, begging someone to read it to me.
Begging, too, for more books. Daddy said, “You need to finish this one before you get another book.”
The next thing I knew, I could read, and my grandmother started sending me Bobbsey Twins books for Christmas and my birthdays.
A few days after one Christmas, when I was in the second grade, my brothers and I all came down with the two-week measles, otherwise known as rubeola. I laid on the big brown couch in our living room for almost two weeks, the curtains drawn against the bright snowy light. It took me three hours to read my first Bobbsey Twins book. Daddy didn’t believe that I’d finished the book, so he opened the book to certain pages and quizzed me on what happened next. I answered right every time. Amazed, because he was always such a slow reader, Daddy gave into my book longings after that.
Cooking began to intrigue me, for at age 10 I began fixing dinner almost every day when Mom returned to university for her graduate degrees. I learned the procedures for the most common dishes that Mom liked:
Creamed hamburger on rice
Creamed tuna on rice
Spaghetti with hamburger, no spices, and two types of Campbell’s soup
Roast beef with gravy
Chinese casserole with hamburger topped with crunch chow-mein noodles
Breakfast dinner, with bacon and eggs and toast
Spam with pineapple rings
I soon grew tired of this bland and unimaginative fare, especially after eating real “Sunday gravy” during one of my babysitting gigs.
And, as you probably guessed, all my babysitting money went for books.
By this time, I knew that I could change my life if I could find the right books. Most of the books I owned at the time tended to be science-based: dinosaurs, geology, botany, astronomy, oceanography, human anatomy. One Saturday, I walked three miles to the university bookstore, where I discovered a Peter Pauper book on simple French cookery.
With that little splurge, I couldn’t turn back. I didn’t want to.
As the years passed, and my wallet grew fatter, I moved beyond copying recipes into now-frayed notebooks to buying books. I have no idea how many books I would still own if I hadn’t moved so many times, but I suspect the number might be somewhere in the vicinity of 12,000. Or more.
Finally, during my last move, I jettisoned almost 1500 cookbooks, donating them to a culinary program near where I lived. I retained about 1000, though.
Every once in a while, I see one of my old “friends” in a used bookstore. Yes, I check to see if they’re mine. They never are. Sometimes I’m tempted to take these orphans home with me, and give them the tender-loving care they need. But I resist. These days, I collect books based on my current writing projects and other interests.
That’s not to say that books like Alberto Manguel’s Packing My Library, in which he describes the pain of ridding himself of 35,000 books, don’t cause me pain, too. They do.
From Jungle Animals to today, I’m still a bit of a hoarder when I can get away with it. I’m a collector, too. And I’m a bibliophile as well. In the age of Kindle and e-Books, is it still possible to be any of those things?
Yes, as long as writers publish their work in print. As long as book lovers still yearn to feel the heft of a book in their hands,
Photo credit of library. C. Bertelsen