You Are What You Read: So Where Do I Put the Recovery Literature?

Posted: January 28, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

If you want to know a little about someone without talking to them (and who wouldn’t choose this option?), you could do worse than scan their shelves.  It’s a good forensic tool for the amateur psychologist and general snoop.  And I’m judgmental; I admit it.  I’ll scorn your book choices if they seem too low-brow or just too few (assuming you’re not a Buddhist or something).  I don’t necessarily judge the guilty pleasure shelf or shelves.  We’ve all got those, be it trashy romances or sci fi/fantasy.  Everyone keeps a little erotica in the boudoir somewhere.

Of course, we all know that we’re judged by our books.  Books ceased long ago to be merely vessels of human communication and became objects that are cherished for themselves–witness those of us who collect first editions or signed copies that are hoarded, displayed, but never read (or read jealously by only the owner herself).  Books have always been capable of conferring status of one kind or another.  And at least as early as the Renaissance, when Gutenburg made it possible for the middle class to self-educate, became the way people could advertise which side their political/religious/intellectual bread was buttered.   In the 90’s, for instance, every would-be intellectual definitely had copies of Joyce’s Ulysses and Rushdie’s Satanic Verses proudly stacked somewhere in the living room.  I know of only one person who read the first without be forced to by a college professor.  And he joins me and one other person as the only people I know who have also read the second.

So when I go into people’s homes, I look for what’s on display.  The more education someone has, usually the more anxious s/he is about this necessary front-matter.  I know a couple–both of whom have PhDs–whose house is very telling in this respect.  Her doctorate is the humanities, his in the sciences.  It’s obvious who wears the public pants in the family, because all the correct novels and nonfiction are upstairs in the living room, and all his geeky manuals and sci fi are down in the basement (which got flooded a few times).  No one but close friends goes downstairs, mind you.

Self-conscious Christians are the worst in this respect.  The coffee table is always set with that big, fat bible on it.  Some of this breed like to display a very nice, white “guest” bible–like the towels in the half-bath for company.  While others proudly place a well-worn, dog-eared copy somewhere prominent.  It has the subtlety of a billboard, of course, and about as much of the same authentic spirituality.  Maybe they’re worried that, with the Rapture right around the corner, Jesus might just come knocking and wonder why it took Him a few minutes to find His book.

So, we know all this.  So now, fellow addicts-in-recovery:   where are we putting our recovery literature?  Most of my close friends and family know about my alcoholism and my efforts to recover, but what about people who just might be in the living room?  Neighbors?  Parents dropping children off for sleepovers?  Nope.  The living room is out.  I’m just not ready for that conversation.

The study seems appropriate, of course.  Ours doubles as a guest room.  It’s the kind of addition to the shelf that says, “Welcome to our home.  I’m sober.  Isn’t that reassuring tonight?”  But we actually do work in our study.  There’s something disconcerting about seeing Alcoholics Anonymous next to a copies of sociology textbooks and Strong’s Bible Concordance. Almost too compartmentalized.

My guess is that the bedroom will get a few votes.  Yep:  keep it there with the porn and the boxed set of The Lord of the Rings your girlfriend got you in college.  Isn’t this a personal matter, after all?  Close to your heart?  Like my autographed copy of Dorothy Allison’s first publication or my personal journals from college…  Well, yes… but if it’s there with the porn, aren’t we over-privatizing the issue?  It’s Alcoholics Anonymous, of course, but it’s always an open secret. Doesn’t the absence of recovery literature in at least a semi-public place indicate intense and self-destructive shame about something that ought to be celebrated and shared?

I have actually been to peoples’ houses who keep all their self-help stuff right out front–long shelf-fulls of handbooks and guides and recovery memoirs decorating the living room.  I can’t tell you how uncomfortable this makes me.  On the one hand, I am writhing with insecurity and a deep sense of unworthiness.  I will never be this sane, I think.  On the other, I remember what the people who own the house are actually like, and am struck by the simultaneous thought:  Have you people actually read this stuff, ’cause it doesn’t show…

Perhaps it is my southern upbringing that flinches at the sight of personal flaws being aired so publicly.  This embarrassment is joined in equal measure by a suspicion of anyone who makes a display of having (presumably) overcome such flaws.  But….

Wait.  I hear a pack of recovery folk buzzing in the background, dispensing very good, sage advice:  “Don’t worry about what other people think.  More importantly, why are you judging other people?  Keep your fork on your own plate!”  Perfectly true, sound wisdom there.  To get back to my but….

The fact is, these dumb little choices matter.  They matter because the conversations that might follow matter–just as they might when someone sees The Satanic Verses on the shelf.  They matter because someone coming over to my house might be struggling with an addiction and too afraid to say so to anyone other than someone who is open about her addiction.  They matter because people are cruel and very, very judgmental, and “worrying about my own stuff” certainly implies protecting myself from others’ stupidity and ignorance.  So, yes, these little things matter.

And after all this, I still don’t know where to put my books.  I think I will continue to be little self-conscious about them.  Right now, for instance, I have a copy of Kirkpatrick’s Turnabout in the downstairs bath, outside my study and bedroom.  What screwed up Freudian message is that sending?  Without going down the anal retentive/expulsive lane, I think the choice says, “hey, recovery is as much a part of my life as crapping and good hygiene.”  Disturbing?  Maybe.  Handy?  You bet!

But please:  tell me where YOUR books are!  (Please see the poll related to this post for more fun!)

  1. Gervaise says:

    I totally related to this! Right now I am in distrust of my “braininess”. It feels like an overused muscle with a repetitive motion injury. 🙂

    Did you get my name reference on ITR? I bet you did.

    • soberfornow says:

      Thought it was a reference to Zola. Was I right?

      Intelligence is usually seen as an obstacle to recovery. I think this is an overemphasized and frequently misunderstood “truism” of recovery. Intelligence is only a barrier to my recovery when I don’t acknowledge the limits of rationality and positivism. The Western understanding of intelligence is very Frankensteinian: rational answers for EVERYTHING, rational methods to CONTROL everything. Postmodern theories assure us that rational answers are provisional at best, that rationality itself is frequently a flawed artifact of uncritical positivism, and that attempts to control people, places, and things lead to things like fascism, nuclear brinkmanship, and Charlie Sheen.

      Them’s my two cents, anyhoo.

  2. G says:

    You’d be impressed with my books. I have a copy of D&G’s 1000 plateaus that I must have bought in 1989 or so. It was about three covers ago (I mean the book has gotten three new covers, been published with three new covers, since then). I even bought a newer copy at one point for some reason. But that old one, it has been to Japan with me (when I lived there) on two separate occasions. So I have been reading it for like 20 years now. Maybe some day I’ll understand it. :-). I have a few, really more like a few hundred, other books too. Literature, “theory” (post-colonial [for some reason I have at least two well-worn copies of Said’s Orientalism], feminism, Marxisms [I have a liking for Benjamin and Lukacs, and I find Jameson and Harvey indispensable], poststructuralisms), philosophy (but the only philosopher I will seriously read is Nietzsche), and other (where can one categorize Bataille?). Oh, and I have a lot of books in Japanese that should be the raw material for my book, if I ever write it, and if I can still remember how to read Japanese…

    I sent you a message in in the rooms as tommythumb.

  3. Eve A. says:

    I was in the hospital awaiting a surgery and I was reading “Freedom From Addiction” by Neil Anderson. but when the nurses were quick to come in I would would catch myself trying to conceal the front cover. No because I was ashamed, I was just afraid the nurses would look at me like I was just another Junkie or Alcoholic. I get this idea because I work in healthcare. I have always been good not to judge ppl (bc I too was struggling) but there is always the nurses desk humor about us. but when things went back and they had to call an Emergency nurse from another floor to my room there was no time to “hide” my literature.

    After the shock and the emergency was over and I was stabilized, she noticed my book. She asked some questions and come to find out her son was an alcoholic and she was needing help with him. She wrote down the name of the book and I gave her a schedule for the local meetings…. I just hope that that conversation could have possibly saved someone from this disease. I AM NOT ASHAMED ANYMORE!

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