“On Hoarding” (by John Boland)

John C. Boland’s short stories have appeared many times in the Dell Mystery Magazines (EQMM and AHMM) and for them he has received nominations for the Edgar, Shamus, and International Thriller Writers awards. His novels, which range from the private eye genre to science fiction thrillers, have earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly. But he isn’t posting today about his writing. Instead, we find his wry voice employed on the topic of book collecting. Though he doesn’t mention it, we suspect the many voices whispering to him from his collection may have inspired him to become a publisher as well. His Perfect Crime Books puts out an impressive array of short story collections, classic reprints, critical non-fiction, and novels in several genres. Check it out!  —Janet Hutchings

There’s a story that may be true—I’m not going to risk spoiling it by research—that the Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco built a splendid library on the second floor of his house. Eco didn’t take account of his books’ weight. Eventually an overburdened floor gave way, and part of the library relocated itself to Eco’s first floor.

I’m not sure when book hoarding becomes dangerous—or even when it becomes hoarding as opposed to casual accumulating or methodical collecting. It’s easier to tell these things with cats. When we had taken in five feral cats, my wife and I knew we were on the verge of slipping from eccentricity to pathology. We stopped inviting in strays and eventually turned to the more acceptable lunacy of raising a child. (People accumulate those too, but now we have a high fence in the backyard that toddlers looking for a dish of milk can’t scale.)

It’s not so easy with books. The strays arrive by mail, for the most part. You’ve paid the postage, you might as well let the thing in for a while.

Of course, when to put it back out becomes the problem. The weather is never quite right.

As books pile up, they’re much less unsanitary than rooms full of cats or children. They don’t always smell good, but thousands of volumes of moldy paper don’t smell too much mustier than one or two. There are no busybodies, moreover, likely to call the police if they think you’ve taken in too many books. There is no SPCA eager to euthanize feral copies of Scaramouche.

But books complicate the domestic order.

In a compatible household, everyone would agree that a room needs bookshelves regardless of its nominal function. I remarked to my wife a while ago that if we covered over all the dining room windows with shelves, we could have a very nice library. A reasonable person would have seen the point: If we really needed a dining room, there were several available in neighbors’ houses.

Mrs. Boland usually gets the point, but our dining room still has its windows.

Several years of recent arrivals—I almost said litters, because they sometimes arrive in fives and eights—have gone into plastic bins for temporary storage. (Try that with a cat or a teenager.) This isn’t at all satisfactory, because part of the pleasure of having a houseful of books is that as you pass their shelves, the voices of the authors murmur. They’re not insistent. The invitation is gentle (though it may be salacious, depending who hides in the covers), and it’s always friendly: Could I tell you again about this crime I solved, or the one I committed, or what life is really like out around Proxima C. (Some voices are more pretentious, but in our house they’ve grown silent from neglect.) Shelf after shelf, all those voices offering endurance, duplicity, eight or nine deadly sins the patriarchs never thought of, Dorothy Parker’s snide couplets, Aubrey Menen’s arrival in Limbo, Ray Bradbury’s secretive dwarfs, Charles Finney’s surreal circuses, Geoffrey Household’s pagan adventurers, Eric Ambler’s accidental spies, P.M. Hubbard’s crazed glass collectors, John MacDonald’s humming psychopaths, the pages chipping, and you think, Whoa, was that really the whisper of Garland Roarke? Or Winston Graham? Or Erle Stanley Gardner. It’s been a while.

All this is by way of a literary confession. It may be that I’ve listened to too many of these voices too lovingly for too long. Max Allan Collins, known for hardboiled tales, said in an interview that Donald Westlake was the last writer to significantly influence him—and that was back in his University of Iowa days, more than forty years ago. Collins developed his own voice, and in the dozens of novels he’s written since then it carries clear and strong.

I could go through the handful of novels I’ve written and say, Now that one does sound a little like Dick Francis. The reviewers said so, and the influence was there—never mind that they could also have mentioned Andrew Garve or even Len Deighton, whom I read diligently for his depictions of bureaucratic politics and the sharp economy of violence.

When I wrote a series of financial mysteries in a sassier voice, I wondered: Where did that come from? I wanted to think myself. But I knew my smart-aleck stockbroker owed a lot to smart-aleck actors, antiques dealers, and private eyes I’d met in other writers’ books.

I’m not sure I’d have it otherwise. Homage is a more self-exculpatory word than career-long theft. For a spy novel set in Budapest, I employed a gimmick I admired in Adam Hall, who throws his readers ahead into the next chapter without resolving what happened in the chapter just ended. (Hall, otherwise known as Elleston Trevor, has been dead awhile and can’t complain that I did it badly.)

For a reader, there is old and new pleasure in those murmuring voices. As a writer, I find endless instruction. Not everyone admires the highly prolific Stuart Woods, but there isn’t a page in his recent novels on which nothing happens. In Orchid Beach, his focal character seizes an opportunity to adopt a new career in about a page—something that would take most of us a chapter of agonizing, for the mistaken sake of verisimilitude.

If I wanted to understand the makings of a quietly disturbing voice, could I find a better teacher than Joel Townsley Rogers (of The Red Right Hand) or P.M. Hubbard, or—across the room in the science fiction department—J.G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick?

If I wanted to open a book without fuss or bother, but with the possibility of a cold finger on a reader’s neck, could I top Geoffrey Household’s The Courtesy of Death?: “I had never thought of the cottage as lonely.”

If I wanted to see how a well-aged pro delivers an emotional jab unexpectedly at the end, I could heed the murmurs of John Updike and turn to “Grandparenting” as Richard Maple holds his new grandchild and realizes: “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory.”

At night I never dream of having more cats, and the No. 1 Son is so satisfactory that I don’t yearn for a second or third. But I dream recurrently of rooms that seem to head off in a circle, one after another, with dingy linoleum on the floors and stacks of metal shelves in the middle congested with books. Room after room. Make of it what you will.

So the books arrive and never leave the house. Hoarding is considered a psychological aberration. What about hoarding the pleasures of other people’s minds? I don’t know if this is discussed in the DSM, but I have a copy of that tome on order. So I will find out, if the floor doesn’t give way.

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