Richard Worth 15th January 2019
If you bought all of Marie Kondo’s books and kept to her rule of keeping only 30 books in your house at a time, 17% of all the books you owned would be about throwing books away. As stupid as that would be, it’s a pretty great way of selling a brand.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about a) it’s time to get the internet granddad and b) Marie Kondo is an author, organising consultant, the figurehead of lifestyle brand Kon Mari, host of innocuous Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and epicentre of the internet’s latest debate: “Should we throw out books we don’t need?”
I’m not here to point out that the show is mistitled (a lot of homes are already tidy, they just have a lot of stuff because, y’know, families live in them) dull, a little tyrannical and ultimately a poor substitute for Queer Eye. Nor am I here to cynically suggest that vague ideas of items “sparking joy” is a nebulous, faux-spiritual concept attempting to give greater, deeper meaning to a brand that benefits financially from telling you how to live your life.
But I am here to say that you don’t have to listen to her and there are plenty of legitimate reasons not to throw books away beyond “I like books”, “having books makes me look smart” or “she talks to the house and I think that’s weird and she’s too nice and she mustn’t be trusted”.
Aesthetics or “Hey! Looking good”
You might own a lot of books that, if you are honest, even with the best of intentions you just won’t get around to reading. The Japanese even have a word for this seemingly universal condition: “Tsundoku”. Though I guess Kondo would say “tsun-DON’T-ku!” (I have little-to-zero grasp of how Japanese works).
But, good intentions and potential book-lover pretention aside, books are pleasing to look at.
Famously, the cover of books don’t indicate the quality of their content but, in a bid to get people to pick them up, they actually hire artists to make them look nice
What Kondo offers, aesthetically, is minimalism. It’s particularly popular in Japan and associated with the Zen Buddhism quest for simplicity. Kondo herself was a Shinto maiden — a native Japanese religion which has influence and blended with Buddhism, and the reason she speaks to the spirit of the house — and she believes God told her to tidy up. That’s not a joke.
But here is the thing — you might want your walls to have something on them other than the off-white paint your landlord refuses to let you paint over. You might not want to go so far as maximalism, the idea that more is more, but you can go for a curated clutter. Famously, the cover of books don’t indicate the quality of their content but, in a bid to get people to pick them up, they actually hire artists to make them look nice.
The spines of books are the bespoke pieces of collage that you can design and even enjoy. It’s fine if you want a blank wall to stare at that while you ponder the futility of life but you also have the option to look at something that pleases you and well, helps you ignore the futility of life.
Burning books or “You don’t have to be perfect”
Aside from the totalitarian tidying rules of an adorable pixie lady, the internet has also been discussing How Millenials Became The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen. Petersen’s lengthy article details how millennials place demands and expectations on themselves that ultimately stop them from being able to accomplish simple tasks in the quest to be as efficient as possible.
Kondo’s minimalist approach to books is another demand for optimal efficiency. Books should only be practical and useful to you now. Or spark joy. But remember, NO MORE THAN 30 BOOKS AT ONCE CAN SPARK JOY.
If you had all the Harry Potter books and all the Game of Thrones books, you would already be at nearly half your book allocation
If you had all the Harry Potter books and all the Game of Thrones books (so far), you would already be at nearly half your book allocation. That’s two relatively small collections an ordinary pop culture fan might have. Add to those Kondo’s books and you only have 10 more spaces to play with. Any more would be inefficient. Is Kondo suggesting we bin everything except for the Prisoner of Azkaban and A Storm of Swords?
While we’re talking about efficiency it’s worth making this point in Kondo’s favour. Some psychologists say organised workspaces do make you more efficient, especially if you’re someone who likes tidiness. But, aside from jobs where you might need a large number of books for reference, reading (and collecting books) is a hobby. You don’t have to be the best at your hobby, you just need to enjoy it. If you had to be the best at it, it would be a sport. And let’s face it, you don’t like sports. You read books.
On top of which, there is reason to believe that clutter actually helps with creativity. Of course, you don’t have to think creatively if you just let a woman off the telly tell you how to live your life.
Bookkeeping or “We don’t all have endless money”
Here at The Overtake, we think a lot about class and while, clearly, Kondo isn’t actually a sinister mastermind working for the bourgeoisie but rather a tiny twee person who wants to bring joy to the world, you can also ignore her advice on the grounds that minimalism requires some privilege.
The idea that having few objects makes you more privileged might seem contradictory but the ability do without is what makes minimalism a touch classist. After all, throwing out what you don’t currently need only works if you know you can easily afford to buy it again in the future, should you need it.
If you threw away anything other than Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, you’re probably going to spend a lot of energy needlessly trawling shops trying to find it again
Books are an investment. With non-fiction, there is always the possibility you will take another glance to refresh your memory or solve an argument about a pub quiz question that has got way out of hand. You might have an old French textbook that you haven’t looked at in a year but you’re hardly likely to give the language another go if you have to fork out for another.
With fiction, it’s even dumber. Want to enjoy that story you read a few years ago? Buy the damn book again!
As a side note, yes books are super cheap second hand and you can get them for 1p plus postage on Amazon (though, none of that money goes to the author, most of whom make obscenely little). Second-hand bookshops and charity shops are great but they don’t necessarily have endless catalogues to choose from, which means if you threw away anything other than Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, you’re probably going to spend a lot of energy needlessly trawling shops trying to find it again. Of course, libraries are free but, again, you’re spending valuable time and resources tracking down a book that you literally threw away.
Stories or “sometimes keeping things isn’t just about ownership”
Books are one of the few objects that retain value despite their condition. If clothes get torn, stained or cease to fit, they are useless to you. Books can take a battering before they’re worthless — they might become unsellable but they still do what they are intended for. In fact, you either have to destroy the book or have absorbed all its content permanently for their value to shrink to zero.
For some people, throwing away a book is akin to sacrilege — seriously, if you are getting rid of your books give them to a library or charity shop, don’t just bin them. A lot of people feel that they’re inherently special and not just in some hippy-twee-bullshit-hygge way.
Some working-class kids were taught to value books and reading as a legitimate means of escaping circumstances
Books contain knowledge. Even shit ones. Some working-class kids (spoiler, one of them is me) were taught to value books and reading, not just as fanciful escapism, but as a legitimate means of escaping circumstances. Every book provided a potential challenge, a lesson and a way to broaden your mind, in order to help get to a better position than the generation that came before us.
Books, any books, were and remain a method of learning, which can lead you to experience things otherwise outside your means. I don’t own a lot of the books I grew up with — my own library has spawned from the interest I developed in the stories I found in my mother’s but to even get rid of that would be a betrayal of this philosophy.
As libraries and bookshops are closing down, our own collections, already special to us, become more valuable to our friends and family as something we can share with one another.
Books reveal what we want and where we want to go
We keep books, not because of our quest for efficiency, but because they tell what’s important to us as people. They reveal what we want and where we want to go. Sparking joy feels like secondary criteria in the face of knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, potential. Books may only be symbolic of this and, really, a material expression of something we should internalise but it seems a shame to throw away potential.
TLDR: If Marie Kondo asked you to jump off a bridge would you? No? Then you don’t have to chuck out your books.
Richard Worth 15th January 2019