Marie Kondo has a point about books. The Japanese tidiness expert has become a cultural sensation with a Netflix show in which she helps people organize and declutter their homes. She has found an enthusiastic audience in a nation full of homes bursting with cheap consumer goods that are not as delightful as we expected. But some people want to exempt books from this cleanup.
Some book lovers took umbrage at Kondo’s suggested limit of about 30 books, even though this was presented as her personal practice, not as an edict for everyone to follow. Twitter users will always find something to be angry about, so Kondo issued a clarification to appease the book-loving angry internet mob. Nonetheless, she had a point. Books tend to become clutter that should be reduced.
I write this as someone with approximately 2,000 books in my home (no, I am not going to count to get a precise number). I read, and reread, extensively for work and pleasure. Remember that odd kid in school who read everything? That was me. But not everyone is like me, for which we should be grateful.
Cull The Shelves!
Although my wife and I have an ungodly number of books (if cleanliness is next to godliness, our untidy shelves might be mortal sins), we regularly cull our shelves, divesting ourselves of unnecessary duplicates and books we no longer want. We love books, and read for both business and pleasure, but we do not need to keep every volume that we have ever acquired.
For example, I have been nursing hard thoughts about much of the “serious” fiction of the last century (John Steinbeck, for instance, was a bit of a hack), so modern literature may have a rough time in the next purge. These efforts will never get us to 30 books, or even 300, but they might keep us from hitting 3,000.
It is important to keep our library’s growth in check (and even trim a bit) because having this many books is annoying. It makes moving much more work, adds to the dusting, takes up a significant amount of space, and gives our home the look of a used bookstore. Guests have reported that coming over for a game is “sort of like watching football in a library.”
Bookshelves are a problem. Veneered particleboard shelves are cheap and readily available, but they are flimsy. Buying new hardwood bookshelves is expensive, and used furniture tends to be mismatched, which negates the aesthetic benefits of buying quality furniture. Building bookshelves is an option, but it takes time, tools, and material. I have 14 bookshelves to replace at 20 feet of oak each, so after a successful prototype I have stopped production until I have a workshop other than the dining room.
Acquiring ALL THE BOOKS! sounds like fun as a young reader. Maintaining all the books is less so, and having a dedicated room as a library (with a housekeeper to look after it), is not an option (alas). And the “magic of books” that some people go on about does not make it easier. I tend to prefer reading hard copies to digital, and there is something comforting about well-stocked bookshelves, but the shelves do not dust themselves, nor do the boxes lift themselves when we move.
Not All Books Are Created Equal
Furthermore, the magic of books is not evenly distributed. This is obvious, but many American have internalized the idea that reading any book is an intrinsically praiseworthy endeavor—a value instilled by teachers and librarians desperate to get children to read anything. But beyond the necessities of basic literacy, the point of getting people to read is to get them to read well.
Owning many books or reading a lot is not the same as being well-read. Reading for enjoyment is not interchangeable with reading for enrichment, much as we might wish otherwise. Having shelves stuffed with well-worn pulp fiction does not make someone educated or intellectual, but careful consideration of even a few of the right books can be invaluable.
It is here that Kondo’s emphasis on items, books included, that “spark joy” is wrong, and where some bibliophiles have a point. Books, by bringing us into communication with others, can be more than objects that give us pleasure or provide utility. Books are intersubjective, for to read a book rightly is to enter a conversation with it.
A good book is an invitation to dialogue, and to see the world as someone else has perceived it. Therefore, some books can change their readers in fundamental ways, which may be of greater value than immediate pleasure. Reading Augustine may not be as amusing as reading P. G. Wodehouse, but it has more potential to make me wiser. Both have their place, but one is better for me.
Of course, mere reading is not enough for the inculcation of wisdom. There are many educated fools. For instance, the sets of classics that proliferated during the first half of last century were mocked by intellectuals, but this literary patrimony was better off with the striving middle class than the academics who sold their intellectual inheritance for a mess of postmodern pottage and destroyed the humanities with malice aforethought. Great books are not above criticism, but they should be treated with respect.
Most books are tools or toys, and should therefore be judged by their utility or by Kondo’s criteria of whether they spark joy. But there are some books by which we are judged. They are not simple clutter to be cleared away; rather, they help clear away the clutter in our minds and souls.