On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books
Summer Brennan Attempts Marie Kondo's Approach to Tidying Up Her Library
Like a lot of avid readers, I enjoyed Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but bristled when it came to the section about books. The gist of her now-famous method is this: go through all your possessions by category, touch everything, keep only that which “sparks joy,” and watch as your world is transformed. It seems simple enough, but Kondo gives minimalism the hard sell when it comes to books, urging readers to ditch as many of them as they can. You may think that a book sparks joy, she argues, but you’re probably wrong and should get rid of it, especially if you haven’t read it yet.
Paring down one’s wardrobe is one thing, but what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose? What sort of psychopath rips out pages from their favorite books and throws away the rest so they can, as Kondo puts it, “keep only the words they like?” For those of us for whom even the word “book” sparks joy, this constitutes a serious disconnect. Still, as the weather gets warmer, many readers will tackle their spring cleaning with The Life-Changing Magic in hand.
I wondered, can Kondo’s Spartan methods be adapted for someone who feels about books the way the National Rifle Association feels about guns, invoking the phrase “cold dead hands”? I decided to give it a try.
Following her instructions, I herded all of my books into one room and put them on the floor. There were more than 500, ranging from books I’d been given as a small child to advance review copies of novels I’d received within the last week. Somehow they did not appear as numerous as one would expect. They looked vulnerable and exposed when stacked up in this way, out of context, like when the TSA zips open your suitcase at the airport. But that is the point of the KonMari method—to force us to see our possessions under the fluorescent light of disorientation.
Oh, I thought, scanning tattered paperbacks and long-forgotten class-assigned texts.
One would be hard pressed to find a lifestyle guru as simultaneously tender and ruthless as Marie Kondo, former Shinto temple maiden and book mutilator. Your socks will feel sad unless you treat them gently and fold them properly, she tells us with emotion, before instructing us to put their cast-off brethren in a garbage bag and send them to the landfill.
The most interesting aspect of the KonMari Method is the way in which it acknowledges the emotional lives of things. Whether that life is inherent or something that we project doesn’t really matter. She bypasses New Age-y concepts like “good vibes” and “energy flow” and jumps right to the chase: the objects you possess have feelings, so deal with it. It may seem silly at first to thank an old sweater for a job well done before getting rid of it, but actually doing so can feel oddly poignant. Kondo’s background in Shintoism is important in this respect. In Shinto cosmology, our physical reality co-exists with an invisible world of animistic spirits. Her worldview is in line with the Japanese aesthetic known in the West as wabi sabi, which explores the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things versus the pleasure we get from the freedom from things.
The aim of KonMari is to more fully appreciate what you have by letting go of that which no longer serves you. The difficulty comes in telling which is which. Much of what we don’t need tends to blend in with its surroundings, like a camouflaging octopus on a reef, effectively invisible until we grab hold of it or get right up in its face. By handling everything, we cause this hidden dead weight to startle, blanche, and show itself. Kondo even recommends clapping one’s hands over the objects to “wake them up.”
I went through my books one by one. Kondo says you shouldn’t open the books, but I broke that rule—not to read them, but to see what I might have long-ago stashed inside.
There was a surprising amount of stuff between the pages—letters, tickets, photographs, receipts. I found my New Year’s Eve resolutions for 1998; a slip of paper acknowledging my plea of GUILTY to a speeding ticket and instructing me to pay $125 to the town of Athens, New York; a hospital bill for $564; a Xeroxed page from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself with the stanza circled that begins I have said that the soul is not more than the body; the muted floral wrapper for fig apricot soap, still fragrant; the boarding pass for a flight from New York to Stockholm; a yellow hall pass from my California high school.
It occurred to me that part of the reason why tackling the “books” stage of the Full Kondo seems so daunting is that to many of us our books don’t really belong in the category she has assigned. They are not impersonal units of knowledge, interchangeable and replaceable, but rather receptacles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morning hopes and late-night sorrows, carried in honeymoon suitcases or clutched to broken hearts. They are mementos, which she cautions readers not to even attempt to contemplate getting rid of until the very last.
To be fair, Kondo no longer thinks that ripping books to pieces is a good idea, but it’s telling to learn that she herself once did this to save space. Keeping parts of books might make sense if your entire library consisted of cooking or craft manuals, but sounds completely crazy when applied to novels or narrative nonfiction. Which chapters of Anna Karenina or In Cold Blood would you keep, for example? The picture Kondo paints is a bleak one, referring mostly to business books and textbooks, to “studying” and “necessary information.” The “classics” she refers to are not Dickens and Brontë but “authors like Drucker and Carnegie,” a management consultant and an industrialist, respectively. With no offense to those two illustrious professions, I am not very shocked that these didn’t “spark joy.”
But to my surprise, I found plenty of books in my possession that did not spark joy either. These included books given to me by exes toward whom I feel no warmth; paperbacks from college with the last 20 pages missing; books that have been more than 10 percent eaten by a former pet rabbit; two sad-looking copies of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, although I’m not sure why. All told there were 30 such books, or perhaps 60. I didn’t count them. They filled three shopping bags. I separated the 547 remaining books I was keeping into two piles—those I had read already, and those I hadn’t.
No matter how joyful or sparkly a book, to her credit Kondo focuses most sharply on a very specific kind of book and book-owning habit: Tsundoku, an untranslatable Japanese word that means “buying books and letting them pile up unread.” First coined in the 19th century, the word doesn’t appear in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but battling it is Kondo’s thesis statement. “Unread books accumulate,” she writes. And indeed they do.
All the books I’d read already went back on the shelves. The 32 unread books “to be read right now” were returned to my bedside table. The 28 “work-related” volumes—I’m a writer, after all—both read and unread, went in their own pile.
I then stacked up my remaining 105 unread books against the wall outside my bedroom. They weren’t headed to Housing Works, but their invisible octopus days were over. As a decorating strategy it’s more Bernard Black than Marie Kondo, but it’s important to embrace our true selves. I’ll read them or I won’t read them, or I will give them away, and don’t you dare use the word party as a verb in this shop.
Kondo argues emphatically and in bolded text that the right time to read a book is when it first comes into your possession. But throwing out every unread book on your bookshelf just because you’re not reading it right now makes about as much sense as throwing away all the perfectly good food in your refrigerator and pantry just because you don’t plan on eating it for your next meal. Only you can gauge your appetite.
“A book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader comes along,” said the critic George Steiner, and that’s true. The good ones are incantations, summoning spells. They are a spark, a balm, a letter from home. They contain demons, gods in a box. They are tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in. We read books that describe magical portals when really it is the books themselves that are the rabbit hole, the wardrobe, the doorway between worlds. Books, like people, are bigger on the inside. It is by this dimension of imaginative relativity that Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Earthsea, Dickens’s London, Hemingway’s Paris, Didion’s anxious California and the mind of Helen Oyeyemi, reclining like a sphinx between her pages in quiet and glittering sleep, all fit inside my tiny apartment, and inside me.
While Kondo-ing my books I was reminded of the story of baby Krishna, accused of eating dirt. When his foster mother demands that he open up his rosebud mouth to prove his innocence, she looks in and sees the complete and timeless universe inside him with its stars and galaxies adrift in black oceans of vast distance, and all of time that ever was or ever will be, and the blue and green earth teeming with life, and all the ideas and feelings that one could ever think or feel, and their own little village with its streets and houses, and their own garden and herself in it, and every bit of dirt in its rightful place.
It’s not true that when you first receive a book is the only right time to read it. Books can stay with you like a talisman on a quest, taken out of your cloak, unwrapped and understood only at your darkest hour: A light to you when all other lights go out.
It’s a useful exercise to clear the cobwebs from one’s bookshelves once in a while, but don’t let anyone talk you into getting rid of your books if you don’t want to, read or unread. Ask yourself whether or not each book sparks joy, and ignore the minimalist proselytizing if it chafes you. After all, the romance of minimalism relies on invisible abundance. The elegantly empty apartment speaks not to genteel poverty, but to the kind of hoarded wealth that makes anything and everything replaceable and available at the click of a mouse. Things and the freedom from things, and then things again if you desire. If you miss a book after getting rid of it, Kondo consoles, you can always buy it again. Dispose and replace, repeat and repeat. Ah, what fleeting luxury.
Anyway it’s “papers” next. Wish me luck.
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WHERE TO DONATE YOUR BOOKS (Should you chose to part with them)
Want to donate your books anyway? General places to donate include local libraries, thrift stores, and homeless shelters. Women’s shelters are especially in need of children’s books. Below is a list of specific organizations across the United States that will happily take your unwanted books and share them with people in need.
NYC Books Through Bars sends free donated books to incarcerated people across the nation.
Operation Paperback sends used books to American soldiers overseas, as well as veterans and military families in the United States.
Big Hearted Books & Clothing has drop-off locations throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
Books for Soldiers: By joining, you can view the books that soldiers’ request, and send what you have.
Books4Cause’s book donations have already created 20 libraries in Africa.
Better World Books allows you to box up your books and print out a shipping label (they pay for the cost of shipping).
Since 1988, Books for Africa has shipped over 35 million books to 49 different countries.
Other donation centers include the Prison Book Program, Chicago’s Open Books, New York’s Housing Works, San Francisco’s Project Night Night, Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s Book Donation Center, and Washington DC’s Books for America.