Reading Matters

Compulsions: An investigation

When my younger son was a baby, I hoarded glass baby food jars. I’d noticed growing up that an uncle nailed the lids of such jars to the underside of a board in his garage, filled the jars with nails and tacks, then screwed the jars into the caps.

I thought that was pretty cool. One day, I might put my dozens of jars to the same use.

But when my father-in-law came to visit and pointed out the folly of my ways, I stopped saving them.

All this to say that I understand hoarding. And I understsand another compulsion: checking my email.

But, according to a new book, “Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions,” I haven’t yet gone round the bend. In other words, I did not dedicate a room in the house solely for the baby food jars, making it unusable for anything else.

Neither do I whistle a carnival song eight hours a day -- one of the many examples author Sharon Begley gives of compulsive behavior.

What are the roots of these behaviors? Some clinicians say that amost everything we do is devised to cheat death. Or to have some control over our lives when the world feels out of control. Or when fears beset us. Or simply to calm our anxieties.

Begley gives us in this book a history of compulsion as well as dozens of interviews with people who struggle – some even compulsively struggling to be good people. Typically, she can trace the behavior to its roots, and typically those roots have their origins in chaos or loss of control.

A fascinating read about human behavior and how it can go haywire.

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

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