Stuff: Oliver-Sacks-like account of pathological hoarders

Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee's Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things is an Oliver Sacks-style series of case-histories of people who suffer from a compulsion that causes them to fill up their living spaces with all manner of junk. The cases are very wide ranging, from people who literally hoard garbage and live in places that are carpeted with vermin and roaches to millionaires who fill a series of posh hotel suites with mountains of fine art and jewels that accumulate layers of dust. All have been Frost and Steketee's patients at their hoarding clinic, where they have pioneered a series of protocols that have had limited success in treating hoarding. They look into Andy Warhol's habit of sweeping the trash off his desk and sealing it a box and sealing it (he called the boxes "time capsules"), into the infamous Collyer brothers (fictionalized in EL Doctorow's depressing novel Homer and Langley), and at a bizarre cat-hoarding cult started by a rogue Manhattan psychotherapist.

Peppered through the histories is a compassionate and insightful look at the underlying psychology of hoarding — fears of waste, a heartfelt need to find ways to re-use damaged goods, and a deep aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of things, as well as an enormous sentimental attachment to objects as totems of moments of pain and joy.

Frost and Steketee also discuss the effects of hoarding on families, the history of the treatment of hoarding, and the rarely reported child-hoarders, providing an in-the-round view into the problem that makes this more than just a spectacle of peering into revolting garbage houses.

Stuff is well-enough written, though no masterpiece (the authors may work in the mode of Oliver Sacks, but they don't have his gift for language), but it is a timely and illuminating look into a problem that is common, under-reported, devastating, and, in its way, utterly contemporary. For though hoarding may be as old as the human species, the abundance of stuff and the growth of strange appendages such as the self-storage locker industry are twenty-first century in the extreme.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things