(Part 2 of my series delving into the “what I learned” from KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: Clothing, Papers, Komono, Sentimental Objects, Storage and Cleaning.)
Holy shit did the Internet have a problem with Marie Kondo’s take on books.
Said problem was sparked in part by a misunderstanding of a line in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which Kondo mentioned that she, personally, limits her book collection to around 30 volumes at a time. But the Intertubes thought she was telling all of us to only have 30 books, I suppose. (Here’s a good summary of the drama.)
I tidied my books before this particular shit hit the webfan, so it wasn’t in my mind while working on my own stacks. I definitely kept more than 30 books.
Just as tidying my wardrobe got me thinking about our relationship to clothing, however, tidying my books got me thinking about our relationship to books.
Fear Me, Says the Lord
USians’ relationship with books is both weird and largely unconscious.
In one sense, we revere books. We’re all about book drives and filling schoolchildren’s hands with books and haranguing parents to read to their kids every night and positing reading as an acceptable alternative to nearly every childhood activity. Book burning ranks up there with flag burning on our list of things we find horrific, associated with a kind of social breakdown that surely presages the End Times.
Yet in another sense, we fear books. At least, we view their readers with a sort of skepticism. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of US adults haven’t read a book in the past year. There are entire US subcultures where merely mentioning reading among your hobbies gets you sideeyed, if not outright ostracized.
So: We respect books, but we don’t respect people who read too many of them. And “too many” is, sometimes, “more than zero.”
With this in mind, the backlash to the idea that there’s a concrete number of books we “should” keep makes a lot of sense. It stems from two sources: Our general love of books in the abstract, and the particular experience of book-lovers that they’re already kind of weird, suspect or outside the norm.
Who Reads the Reader?
Then there’s the fact that, like clothing, we use books to mediate identity. Unlike clothing, however, we don’t consciously affirm or accept that this is what we’re doing.
Books mediate identity by becoming part of our identity through the process of reading. Even people who fell out of the reading habit as adults can often name at least one book they remember from childhood that affected them in some way. For people who particularly love books – who surround themselves with books and hang onto those they loved – being asked to toss out books feels very much like being asked to toss out the chunk of yourself formed by the experience of reading that book.
Kondo acknowledges this in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when she points out that every book you read is now a part of you, whether or not you remember having read that book. She posits this as a way to encourage acceptance of the idea that “Does it spark joy?” should remain your operative question. What matters is that it sparks joy still – not that it did once but no longer does.
Perhaps the most baffling part of the book backlash, to me, is that Kondo’s animism is the closest I have seen anyone come to acknowledging the identity-enacting role that books play in our psyches. Kondo clearly understands that books have a life that interacts with our own. She understands this so clearly that she’s willing to talk about it.
Talking about it is something we don’t do in the US. That would make us even weirder than we are now for enjoying books in the first place. Our “right” way of thinking about books sees them as tools primarily for children. We love the idea that books for children are a “productive” means of teaching children to be good citizens.
For adults, however, reading quickly becomes dangerous. Books engage us in the process of constructing our own identities, and by so doing, they fill our heads with thoughts that might lead us away from the ever-increasing productivity demands of capitalism.
If you think I’m overrreaching, consider the role creative writing programs have played in our national consciousness since – and as a weapon of – the Cold War.
Combine books’ effect on our identities with the edge of defensiveness we already have about maintaining large collections of them, and you’ve got a recipe for one hell of a societal backlash to the mere thought that we might reduce the size of our collections.
What is a Book, Anyway?
Some of the backlash I saw in my own social media circles focused less on the “thirty books” idea and more on some of Kondo’s other advice, including:
- Kondo’s recommendation not to open books or to start reading them when deciding whether or not they “spark joy”
- Kondo’s assertion that the best time to read a book is when you first encounter it.
Both of these depend on unpacking our understanding of what a “book” is.
Books have three different “lives” or states of being. There’s the book-as-object – a stack of paper, ink and glue. There’s the book-as-experience – the process of reading it. And there’s the book-as-identity – our memories and feelings associated with having read the book.
When we talk about choosing which “books” to keep, we may be talking about any or all of these things. Since we tend to conflate all three, it’s easy to misunderstand one another when we talk about books.
Should You Open Your Books?
When Kondo cautions not to open a book in order to decide whether or not it sparks joy, it’s because she wants tidiers to focus on whether the book-as-object sparks joy. The goal of the KonMari process, after all, is to change our relationship with the physical objects that occupy our living space.
From this perspective, it makes total sense to avoid opening or reading the book, both of which enter into the domain of book-as-experience or book-as-identity.
Encountering the book as an object at this point in the process also solves problems like “But I loved reading this so much in college!” or “But do I really need two copies?” Okay, but does the physical object make you happy now? Does each physical copy, on its own, make you happy?
It’s why, for example, I had no compunction whatsoever about saying goodbye to my boxed set of Little House books, even though they meant everything to me as a kid. The books in the set, as physical objects, no longer spark joy for me; in fact, they felt heavy, like a rock I’d picked up somewhere on the trail but didn’t think I could put down. The Little House books-as-identity will always be part of me, but I had no desire to encounter them again as books-as-experience, and the books-as-objects had become mere clutter.
On the other hand, I immediately moved each of my two copies of Moby-Dick to the “yes!” pile. Both copies spark intense joy for me as objects, and part of what I love about them as experience is the experience of reading these particular physical copies – which is why I do read them more often than I read the electronic version on my Kindle.
When Is It Time to Read Your Books?
The conflation of these three lives of books also, I think, makes Kondo’s statement about the “right” time to read a book more difficult to understand – and here, I think it’s because Kondo, who was so clear on the distinction when it came to the tidying advice, conflates the lives of the book herself.
Here, the truth I find in this statement is that the right time to incorporate book-as-identity is when we first encounter book-as-experience. In other words, it’s time to read a book when we first approach it, not necessarily when we first acquire it.
This is certainly commensurate with my experience. To cite a recent example: I’ve had an advance copy of Aric Davis’s Weavers on my bookshelf ever since it was sent to me by his publisher in advance of the book’s release – since 2013 or so. I didn’t get to it before it came out, so it’s sat on my shelves ever since, waiting for me to get to it.
I finally read Weavers last week. And though the timing was not at all convenient for Davis or his publicist, it was the exact right time for me to read the book.
If your goal with regard to your personal library is to avoid drowning your best friends in a crowd of strangers, it makes sense to shorten the time between encountering book-as-object and encountering book-as-experience as soon as possible. The quicker you make friends with the book, the sooner it stops being a stranger.
But if your goal for your library is to have the right voice available for consultation when you need it, keeping books-as-objects that spark joy even though you haven’t encountered them as book-as-experience yet makes sense.
The Cull and What I Learned From It
Like clothing, I also expected my own book tidying to go fairly quickly, but for different reasons.
I haven’t curated my book collection the way I have my wardrobe, with a ton of research and color-coded index cards and Pinterest boards dedicated to the topic. For one thing, there’s not a lot out there on how to curate a personal library to present a certain image to the world. Books are personal in a way that clothing isn’t. Janice in Accounting or Bobby the cashier aren’t going to see our libraries in the way they see our outfits.
I curated my book collection the way most book-lovers do: I acquired books and then I kept them.
We recently moved to a new house with considerably less storage space than the old one, which meant that I cut about a third of my books last July. So when I got to the “books” portion of the KonMari method, I believed that I wouldn’t do a whole lot of cutting.
Nevertheless, I’d enjoyed the process of tidying my wardrobe so much that I decided not to skimp on tidying books. I’d do it exactly the way Kondo recommended. So I piled all my books on the floor, held each one in my hands, and asked myself if it sparked joy.
…I ended up getting rid of about half of my remaining books, bringing the grand total in the house down to about 250.
Please Don’t Confuse KonMari With Minimalism
As I was cutting, I was having a Facebook conversation about the differences between KonMari and minimalism.
I posted this photo in the thread:
With it, I commented, “I dare anyone to look at this and tell me it’s a minimalist bookshelf, and it’s one of four.
It’s not about minimalism; it’s about making sure that everything you have contributes to the overall happiness of your household. I got rid of at least as many books at you see here, but I’m much happier, because everything I see on this shelf is something I love and want to read. I couldn’t see those books before because they were mixed in with stuff that just made me feel tired.”
When I started, this bookshelf was full:
I estimate there were 60 to 80 books on it, total. The middle shelf was mostly mass-market paperbacks; the bottom was mostly trade hardcover. (The top shelf was and remains reserved for feline use, hence the towel.)
I kept five of them.
Everything else fell into a category I have started to think of as “obligation books.” I kept Obligation Books because I felt, well, obligated.
They were books other people had given to me that I felt I “should” read, or books I had purchased myself because I thought I “should” read them. I felt I should read the former because someone cared about me enough to give them to me; I felt I should read the latter because they were the sort of books read by the sort of person I thought I should become. They were homework from Past Me to Present/Future Me.
The biggest surprise wasn’t the number of Obligation Books on this shelf. It was that the number of Obligation Books on other shelves was zero.
Somehow, my subconscious had sorted all the Obligation Books onto the shelf in the least-used room of the house (this is our three-season porch). Not only that, it sorted them onto a bookshelf that was itself a gift that I keep primarily because it is useful and sturdy, not because it sparks joy.
If I needed any confirmation that Kondo’s advice to trust my instincts is right, I found it here.
The five books I kept from the Obligation Bookshelf are in this photo:
They’re to the right of the dictionary on the top shelf: Redwall, Mossflower, and Mattimeo by Brian Jacques, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
I had a terrible time deciding what I felt about these books. I moved them to a “maybe” pile, then to a “are these really sentimental objects?” pile, then to the “no” pile before finally rescuing them from the box of books to depart just before I closed it. I put them on the shelf beside my bed and that was the exact right place for them.
I think of these five as “reverse-obligation books.” They’re not books I thought I had to keep; they’re books I thought I had to get rid of, either because I’d outgrown them or because, let’s face it, I have many feelings about Wuthering Heights but “joy” isn’t one of them.
These five books have been on my bookshelf for nearly thirty years now – even Wuthering Heights, which my mother bought for me long before I was old enough to actually read it. They’re part of what makes a place “home” for me.
Yet when confronted with whether or not to keep them, I struggled to accept that they are part of my home. I had put an obligation on myself to sever my attachment to these books, even though they do in fact make me happy, because I thought they didn’t match who I “should” be. Just as I thought the Obligation Books were books the me I should be should own, I thought these books were books the me I should be shouldn’t own.
Being able to name that internal struggle, through the process of sorting my books, has put it to rest for me. I own what makes me happy. I am not required to justify, argue, defend or explain my happiness.
A Note on Acquisitions
As a result of KonMari’ing my bookshelves, I also bought three new books. And I did it on Kondo’s advice.
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo reminds readers that even if we make a mistake and discard a book we later wish we hadn’t, we can always acquire it again.
Several years ago, I discarded three textbooks that I had bought for myself during undergrad – not for a class (my university did not offer classes in this particular subject), but simply because I had a passion for it and wanted to learn it. I discarded them at the time under the “reverse obligation” theory – “you’re never going to use these again, it’s time you grew out of just studying stuff for fun, you need to be an adult now.”
I’ve regretted getting rid of them for ten years now.
So I replaced them. It cost me less than $50 and five minutes on Amazon. And I’m incredibly happy that I did.
It’s about creating bookshelves that contribute to the overall happiness of your house, whether that means you own three books or three thousand. You don’t need to limit yourself to thirty; just limit yourself to the number you know you can love.
Next time: Paperwork.