30 Books — A KonMari Controversy
edit: I wrote this (incomplete) essay a couple of years ago, and just found it again while going through my drafts folder. I like it enough to publish as-is, despite the dated material and total lack of a concluding paragraph.
Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, has raised a new awareness of her, and set off a lot of controversy. In particular, her remarks about books led to some real hostility among my friends — this meme was quite popular in my social circles.
I think talking about books in particular sets people off for complex reasons, and in ugly ways.
Books are not sacred. Reading is sacred.
I think the root of the problem is that books feel sacred to many people. To treat books like mere stuff, to be given away, or — worse — thrown away, is a profane act. It seems not just wasteful, but immoral.
But books are not sacred. Reading is sacred. Books are merely a tool. They may be beautiful, or collectible, or valuable, or sentimental, on a book by book basis. But a library? All the books you own? That’s not sacred. Your personal library is somewhere between a collection and hoarding. Hoarding is not a sacred act. It’s a bad habit, or even an illness.
I am a reader. A book lover. I love my books!
For those of us who read, it becomes a part of our identity. Our sense of self is formed in large part by the books we’ve read, the ideas we’ve learned from them, the feelings they’ve inspired, the communities we’ve found through them. As such, our personal library is a reflection of our identity. Through the books we’ve read, and the books we intend to read, sitting on our bookshelves, we tell others and tell ourselves who we are — our values, our experiences, our aspirations.
But that library that helps define our identity isn’t a single mass. It’s a collection of many books. How does each individual book you own define your identity? Consider some examples from my own library. A book that sparks joy for me is Outlaw Cook, by John Thorne. In its pages, I find my identity — my love of food, my love of cooking, the imagined ideal of a dish, and a willingness to pursue my imagined ideals with passion and zeal that border on obsession… wait, this isn’t just about food anymore, is it? After 20 years, I still read that book regularly. And on the same bookshelf? The Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair, an old reference book that sits awkwardly on a too-small shelf, where I’ll never look at it again. Why do I even have it? What does it say about me that I clearly went to some effort to store a book that I don’t care about at all?
For that matter, what about the bookcases I have buried in a storage room, filled with books I barely even remember, unnoticed except when I go look for something every once in a while? Last year, I bought a new copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. A day or two later, I stumbled on my old copy (that I thought I’d given away) on one of those basement shelves. While it’s a book that defines my identity, a book that lit shining fires in my young mind, it’s also a book that I neglected so much I forgot I even had it.
Getting rid of books strengthens our sense of identity.
This is where the KonMari method really shines. I will go through every single bookshelf I own, and take every single book off those shelves. I will handle each one. I may open them up and read a passage. I may read for a while. And if that book sparks joy, I will thank it and put it back on the shelf. Otherwise, I will thank it and put it aside, for donation, or as a gift. And when I am done, I will (hopefully) have a much smaller library — a library which is all familiar to me, where I know what is in it and why it’s there. A library that tells me who I am, and what I value. A library that says not just that I love books, but that I love these books, that I love each one enough to honor it with a word and a private moment, even if I may never read it again.
The other night, I did my first bookshelf — a hard one, since it’s the one most at hand, with the most recent books. I kept a lot more than 30 books, even on that one shelf! But six in particular I set aside — American War, Station Eleven, The Windup Girl, The Once and Future King, Freakonomics, and Antifragile. I’ve read them all, loved them all — and will never read any of them again. So why keep them? Why not make gifts of them? Won’t that bring me more happiness than dusting them occasionally? My friend Joe, a bold progressive and the actor who gave life to Darth Vader onstage in my play The Tragedy of Obi-Wan Kenobi, will love reading the dark Second Civil War future of American War. My beloved daughter can finally read the dystopian GMO nightmare that a future Thailand faces in The Windup Girl. And The Once and Future King, in its elegant hardback, may find its way into one of the little libraries that dot the yards of my neighborhood. I feel that giving away these six books says more positive things about my identity, and my love and admiration for them, than keeping them on a shelf forever would say.
How many books is 30, anyway?
So, how many books do you think you read a year? Do you know? I’m guessing I read about two or three a month — that’s 30 books a year. (It’s Jan 15, and I’ve read two so far this year by mid-January, one being Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.) So by her very restrictive standard, that’s a year’s worth of reading. Now, of the books you read, how many are new to you, and how many are re-reads? How many do you read on Kindle, rather than paper? Do you re-read more than, say, a third of your books? I’d guess about a quarter of my reading is re-reads (my other book so far this year is a re-read, Snow Crash). So how many books do I have left in me over my life? A thousand? Two thousand? Not a lot. I’m pretty sure there are a thousand books in my house right now, between my spouse and me. That’s terrifying, in a way. I could read for years and not get through them all, even if I never bought another book.
If I’m only reading thirty books a year, is keeping only thirty an outrageous goal? Hell, even if I read a hundred books a year (I’ve been that high at times), I’d be set for months. Maybe she’s on to something important here.
Directly in my line of sight right now, a half-dozen large-format hardbacks are cozy in their new bookshelf space big enough to hold them — books like The Soul of a New Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson, and The Great British Recording Studios by Howard Massey. These and their shelfmates were recent reading material for me, some still in progress. They were in a messy pile on the floor next to my favorite chair, getting dirty and damaged, stepped on by dogs, and otherwise mistreated. Then I went through and KonMari’d my DVD collection, getting rid of 3/4 of them (three grocery bags full), and incidentally, clearing the shelf that now safely and visibly holds these lovely books.