Full Bookshelves Are Not Untidy

This entry was published at least two years ago (originally posted on January 12, 2019). Since that time the information may have become outdated or my beliefs may have changed (in general, assume a more open and liberal current viewpoint). A fuller disclaimer is available.

EDIT: I just came across this article, and I have to admit, I definitely see elements of the classism and elitism being called out here in what I wrote a few days ago (I think I missed out on sliding into racism, thankfully).

[Ellen] Oh says, “There is an overemphasis on the words ‘spark joy’ without understanding what [Kondo] really means by it. Tokimeki doesn’t actually mean joy. It means throb, excitement, palpitation. Just this basic understanding annihilates Schofield’s argument that books should not only spark joy but challenge and perturb us. Tokimeki would imply that if a book that challenges and perturbs us also gives us a positive reaction, then why wouldn’t you keep it?”

“The backlash has focused on everything from [Kondo’s] poor English to making fun of the terms she [uses],” Oh says. “We have seen so many memes making fun of the concept of ‘sparking joy’ and it reminds me in many ways of people deliberately misunderstanding and making fun of my parents’ broken English.”

There is also, Oh says, a certain amount of privilege that has come into play in the book-tidying discussion.

“Classism, elitism, the privilege of having a big house with a lot of storage? I don’t know what the rationale is for the backlash but I do know that it comes from a place of privilege,” Oh says. “Elitism in that if you don’t have lots of books you can’t possibly be very smart. And financial classism because I remember being young and poor and owning less than ten books. It was why the library was my sanctuary.”

I’ve always been fortunate enough to have the money — mine, or from my family — to have the luxury of a large book collection. True, I do much of my book shopping at Goodwill and other used book stores, but I also tend not to think twice about dropping the money on new releases by favorite authors or for personal projects like reading all of each year’s P.K. Dick nominees. I’ve also always been able to devote space to storing my book collection, whether on shelves in whatever home I’m in at the time, or keeping a storage unit with boxes of books when in transition.

Unquestionably, these are things that many people cannot afford to do, and I should recognize when my privilege allows me to scoff at those who prioritize things other than books (including those who simply don’t prioritize physical books, but prefer electronic books on their Kindles or tablets, which admittedly do offer notable space and at times financial benefits over physical book collections).

Original post follows:

So far, we’ve only watched the first episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, and neither Prairie nor I were terribly taken by it. Part of it — at least in my case — was that Ms. Kondo’s methods skew pretty far into the realm of “woo” that I’ve never engaged with.

But there was also something about the couple she was helping in that first episode that rubbed us the wrong way. Once the episode was done, we figured that at least part of that was that the couple didn’t have any books in their house. Though Kondo’s steps as outlined near the beginning of the show include a full step devoted to “tidying” books, that wasn’t a part of the first episode at all — and I have a certain distrust of people who don’t have books in their life.

And of course, when it comes to our bookshelves, you can “tidy” your way right out the front door, thank you very much. We had to do a major purge of our shelves in our recent move, in order to downsize into our current apartment, and not only was it a difficult and unpleasant process in itself (there is no element of “sparking joy” in getting rid of books), but we’ve each since had moments of “oh, crap, did we get rid of that one?” Neither of us has a “to read” pile; we have entire “to read” bookshelves, which are double-stacked on more than a few shelves.

Plus, how in the world do you define “sparking joy” when it comes to literature?

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.

There are so many good, worthwhile reasons to have books around, whether literature or reference or instructional or curiosities or anything else, that don’t “spark joy”.

In one episode of her Netflix series, Kondo helps two male writers declutter their very tidy home. When it comes to the books, the advice is grim. “Books are a reflection of our thoughts and values,” Kondo says to the viewer. “Will these books be beneficial to your life moving forward?”

Books are not a reflection of our thoughts and values, because more often than not they reflect someone else’s, whether it is Lolita, Mrs Dalloway or Snoopy. Most of us don’t share the values of Adolf Hitler, but we may own many books about the second world war. The question of whether my books will be beneficial to my life moving forward requires a biblio-telepathy I do not possess. Our book collections record the narrative of expansion, diversion, regression, terror and yet-to-be-discovered possibilities of our reading life. This is why, on entering your living space, people immediately migrate to examine your bookshelves, rather than rummage in your cutlery or sock drawers.

Ms. Kondo may well be good at organizing and helping people find ways to de-clutter and tidy their lives. But she can keep her sparkling woo away from my bookshelves.