When Books Breed Compassion

While stopped at a traffic light yesterday, I noticed a puttering station wagon next to me with a little old lady in a floppy gardening hat behind the wheel. I could just make out her profile as she peered out her windshield patiently waiting for the light to change.

My obstructed view was not due to her petite stature or an advanced stage of osteoporosis, mind you, but rather from the climbing stacks of old newspapers, rotting stuffed animals, cardboard boxes, blankets, and foils in differing states of decomposition; overall, a stockpile that threatened to bust out the windows and swallow her whole.

Fiction often intersects with my reality, and it was at this moment of observation that I was tossed back into the Fifth Avenue home of the Collyer brothers. Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow's jaw-dropping tale, was my first real insight into the pathos of hoarding and the uncontrollable obsession with accumulation.

Based on this fiction, my mind soared with the endless possibilities of what might await on the residential end of this little lady's drive. However, instead of being horrified by this mobile compost and thoughts of her potentially toxic home, Doctorow's Homer & Langley offered me the possibility to translate this scenario into one of knowledge, creativity, compassion, and empathy.

And isn't that, after all, the true gift of a book?

Freelance writer Megan Shaffer has both her Bachelor and Master degrees in Education. She currently works in the schools of Birmingham, Michigan where she shares her love of literature. When Megan is not in the classroom, she is actively involved in the local literary scene and maintains a blog, Night Light Revue, about new books and authors.




The Real Homer and Langley
The Collyer brothers of Doctorow's novel, like many of his fictional characters, are based on historical personalities. Though he shifts the time-period up a few decades and re-imagines the brothers, the bones of the narrative can be found in the headlines of decades past. The real Homer Collyer (b. 1881) was found dead in his dilapidated Fifth Avenue mansion in Harlem in 1943. Homer and his younger brother Langley (b. 1885) had become infamous in Manhattan for their exorbitant wealth and reclusive lifestyle during the early 1930's. For close to two decades neighbors and municipal officers tried to have the brothers evicted due to their refusal to dispose of rubbish and pay taxes, but the two remained in their brownstone their entire lives. Eventually living without water, power, or plumbing, it was up to Langley to scavenge subsistence for the two. The newspapers regularly covered the habits and eccentricities of the Collyer brothers throughout the decade before their death.

Homer's malnourished body was discovered by police after a neighbor reported a fouler-than-usual stench. When the police came into investigate they found Homer's body in a tiny room overstuffed with newspapers and junk. Langley, however, was nowhere to be found, and a manhunt was launched. Meanwhile, the police spent weeks clearing out 103 tons of junk in order to search for clues. They removed: glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, human organs pickled in jars, more than 25,000 books, 8 live cats, the chassis of an old Model T, 14 pianos, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, and countless stacks of newspapers and magazines.

After three weeks of clearing the house, a workman found Langley's decomposed body ten feet away from where Homer had died. Police determined that Langley had been crawling through the stacks of newspapers to bring food to his brother when he was crushed and killed by a booby trap of his own design (made out of bundles of newspapers and suitcases). With Langley dead, Homer, blind and paralyzed, starved to death several days later.

When asked by the New York Observer a year before his death what he intended to do with his tons of newspaper bundles, Langley replied, "I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news."

The above information on the Collyer brothers is taken from BookBrowse's review of "Homer & Langley" by E.L. Doctorow, reviewed by Natasha Vargas-Cooper.

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