SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
Title: Homer and Langley
Author: E.L. Doctorow
Page Count: 208
Genre: Historical fiction, Biographical novels
Tone: Lyrical, dark, complex
1. In an interview on NPR, E.L. Doctorow said that the first line of this book was pivotal for him; he could not have done this book without this 1st sentence. It implies the texture of the entire text. Does anyone remember the 1st line? What is its importance to the reader?
2. Given this opening, how do you think Homer emotionally and physically handled his blindness? Do you think it was a “normal” reaction?
3. Homer went blind in his last 14 years of life from a stroke, not in his earlier years. Does this change your opinion of him?
4. Do you remember the description of their house? Do you think of the house as a character as well as the setting?
5. Do you think the house’s condition reflects the brothers’ own physical and mental conditions?
6. How would you describe Homer at the beginning of the story? What about Langley? What were their parents like?
7. What events happen in Homer and Langley’s lives that change everything?
8. What was Homer’s reaction to his parents’ death?
9. What effect did the WWI have on Langley? Did it change him? How would the brothers’ lives have been different if there had been no war?
10. What was Langley’s “Theory of Replacements”? Does the theory have any merit?
11. Langley is obsessive in his quest to create one universal newspaper of “seminal events”. What categories were used by Langley so that the newspaper would be “eternally current”? Why was this project so important to him?
12. There was an eclectic assortment of people who came into Homer and Langley’s lives. Do you feel that the brothers collected people the way that Langley collected objects? Did these people have anything in common?
13. Besides Homer and Langley, who are the most memorable character for you and why?
14. At one point, the Collyer brothers host tea dances in their home and charge their neighbors for the opportunity to drink and dance. Are the tea dances connected to Homer and Langley later becoming reclusive? Were they ever raided? If so, what happened after they were raided?
15. When WWII begins, the Hoshiyama’s, American born people of Japanese descent, are persecuted. What happens to them? Why? Is this based on history? What was your reaction to their persecution?
16. After the Hoshiyama’s were sent to an internment camp Langley said, “…We are not free if at someone else’s sufferance…” What did he mean by that?
17. After Harold Robileaux is killed in Africa, Grandmamma goes to New Orleans to be with his wife and baby. “Grandmamma had been the last connection to our past. I had understood her as some referent moral authority to whom we paid no heed, but by whose judgments we measured our waywardness.” Do you think things would still have gotten so bad is she had not left the brothers?
18. What did you think of the gas masks Langley bought? Why did he buy them?
19. Do you think the Collyer brothers tried to be completely self-reliant? What were their tactics? Were they successful?
20. Do you think the brothers were any crazier than the people around them?
21. Why do you think the press became so interested in their predicament?
22. What is the importance of Jacqueline? Did she remind you of anybody of that era? Do you think Jacqueline actually existed?
23. Do you think it was a sacrifice for either brother to stay in the house?
24. As is often the case in historical fiction, the author took liberties with known facts about the Collyer brothers. Why do you think E.L. Doctorow made these changes and how does it affect the dynamics between the two brothers? Do you think these changes made the characters more sympathetic?
25. How heavily did the hoarding take up your attention as a reader? Do you think hoarding is an unsettling disorder to observe? Why or why not?
E.L. Doctorow’s website
Lit Lovers book discussion questions
Cornell University book guide
Weber State University book discussion
WNYC radio interview
Inside the Collyer home
Collyer brothers Wikipedia
If you liked Homer and Langley, try…
Spooner by Pete Dexter
Keepsake by Kristina Riggle
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee