In Case of Rapturous Decluttering, Don’t Throw Away Your Books


Should you get bitten by the Kondo bug, go gently with your book collection.

The tidying-up wonder known as Marie Kondo has a show on Netflix, and by all accounts, it seems to be taking the over-cluttered masses by storm. Social media is literally littered with photos showing piles of jettisoned joyless junk, as legions of decluttering warriors fall under the spell of the effervescent Ms. Kondo.

There is so much to be said in recommendation of a more minimal lifestyle. We are a people hungry for consumerism and it’s leading to all kinds of problems for the planet. Kondo’s basic nugget to determine whether we need something is to ask if said something sparks joy – and if it does not, then it is not needed. If we all took some time seriously considering this question before making a purchase, the world would be better off.

Recently nestled within all the Twitter images of piles of clothes and newly organized pantries, however, was a sign of dissent by writer Anakana Schofield. Behold the nerves of steel of this woman, who unleashed the following upon the Twitterverse:

«Do NOT listen to Marie Kondo or Konmari in relation to books. Fill your apartment & world with them. I don’t give a shite if you throw out your knickers and Tupperware but the woman is very misguided about BOOKS. Every human needs a v extensive library not clean, boring shelves.»

And you know what this otherwise-minimalist book-hoarder says? Hallelujah, Ms. Schofield!

Books Do More Than ‘Spark Joy’

I watched as the tweet went viral, and now Schofield has penned an essay at The Guardian on the topic, noting that “tidying guru Marie Kondo advises us to ditch reading we don’t find joyful. But one’s personal library should do much more than anthologise warm feelings.”

Schofield says that at the time of writing the Guardian post, there were «25,000-plus tweets» in reply; 65 percent in agreement with her and 20 percent in disagreement.

Schofield believes that Kondo is woefully misguided when she says we should get rid of books that don’t give us “joy.” She writes.

«The metric of objects only ‘sparking joy’ is deeply problematic when applied to books. The definition of joy (for the many people yelling at me on Twitter, who appear to have Konmari’d their dictionaries) is: ‘A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, a thing that causes joy, success or satisfaction.’ This is a ludicrous suggestion for books. Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.»

It’s such a good point. I look at the rows of books on my shelves and while I can’t help but to notice that they are a great source of visual clutter in an otherwise minimal-ish home, I would never toss them. That said, in the midst of a recent cleaning-the nest frenzy, I thought, “the books, they have to go.” It’s as if I had been mesmerized by a minimalism magician! I quickly came to me senses, but I am sure I am not the only one to which this has happened.

Does every one of those books bring my joy, like warm-puppies-and-unicorns joy? No. Some are hard, some are bleak; Blood Meridian brings me shudders for its gore, Edith Wharton brings me to the brink of melancholia. Some remind me of troubled times, some are sad. Some of them are written by scads and scoundrels, some are literally falling apart. How many times have I opened any of the books from graduate school in the last year? Likely not once.

But toss them? No way! As a collection, all of my books create their own narrative, an otherwise impossible timeline of my life. In a world where everything is so ephemeral and fleeting – where photographs live in an abstract cloud and digital books live in a format that may be rendered irrelevant in a few decades – my book collection feels comfortingly solid.

More Reasons to Keep Your Books

Beyond them being a part of my history, I think about what went into each book. Every word, of the millions of words living on my bookshelves, was written with thought; every sentence crafted with intention. My personal library is like a microcosm of humanity, of my own design. A solar system of objects, each with its own story.

And as for the unread books? One of the great tenets of decluttering is if you haven’t used something in a certain amount of time, toss it. Which would mean all of you who are masters of tsonduku – the practice of buying more books than you can read – are plum out of luck. And I know that there are a lot of you out there, given that our story on the topic was TreeHugger’s most popular last year. That a book is unread should not be an indication of its uselessness, rather, a promise of its potential. It’s like having a gift to open or a vacation to look forward to. A stack of unread books is a hallway of doors, each leading to an unknown adventure – the promise of a continuum. As A. Edward Newton, author, publisher, and collector of 10,000 books said:

«Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.»

Schofield wisely notes that the question of whether her books will be beneficial to her life moving forward “requires a biblio-telepathy I do not possess.”

This applies to us all (unless of course you are a biblio-telepathist). So if you find yourself in the midst of a Kondari-inspired rapture, consider sparing the books. There is a lot to love about Kondo and her rejection of clutter and consumerism, but the value of joy is not one size fits all. Sure, get rid of the joyless socks and soup ladles. If you realize you’ve made a mistake, they can be replaced.

But a book collection in its entirety, nurtured over a lifetime of reading, can in itself be considered a thing of joy … and once it’s gone, it can not be replaced. Go ahead and alphabetize by author, dust the covers, and straighten the spines – but if you keep just one thing in your decluttering frenzy, consider keeping the books.

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