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Rebecca Falkoff on the Cultural History of Hoarding

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We asked author Rebecca R. Falkoff how hoarding—once a paradigm of economic rationality—came to be defined as a mental illness and three questions about her new book, Possessed: A Cultural History of Hoarding.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

At a visit to the Contemporary Archive of the Gabinetto Vieusseux in Florence I saw a display of books destroyed in the flood of 1966, including a copy of Vol. VI of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, malformed like a heavy heart wearied by mud-clogged vessels. The Gabinetto Vieusseux also holds some 11,000 of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s papers: receipts, correspondence, promotional pocket calendars, and inventories from the great reorganization begun in 1933 and never completed. The documents were badly damaged in the flood; thousands of hours of meticulous labor has been undertaken to salvage some words from the trove of paper, ink, mud, and mold.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

When I began this project, I wanted to know why hoarding, and why now? And what does hoarding discourse do? The more I learned about hoarding and hoarding-adjacent practices of the last two centuries, the clearer it became that hoarding discourse does a lot of things. I stopped trying to find one theory that could encompass the semantic field of hoarding and recognized that contractions let air into a project, giving it room to breathe. I wish I believed (or at least practiced) everything I know about writing, including two truths I often repeat to graduate students: You can’t write everything all at once; and The hardest thing about writing is notwriting.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of History?

I have no such wish. I confess, however, that many of the recent scholarly works that I have found to be particularly exciting are by historians reading like scholars of literature, by scholars of literature reading like historians, or by theorists working between disciplines.

*Featured photo by Paul Felberbauer.

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Rebecca R. Falkoff is Assistant Professor of Italian Studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccarfalkoff and @ifiwereahoarder.

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