July 5, 2018KR BlogBlog

Kondo-ing My Books, Part I: Empty Shelves

Let’s skip over the fact that I actually read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, something my former self never anticipated, and let’s also move past just how quickly I embraced the author’s philosophy of discarding and decluttering. (I can’t say the same for the suggestion that tidying leads to weight loss, the declaration that women shouldn’t wear sweatpants around the house, or the promise of happier socks, but that’s neither here nor there.) I’ve always aspired to pare down my possessions, and the prospect of living in a clutter-free environment has long struck me as a great but unattainable dream. Kondo’s book, however, made me believe I could finally get rid of my excess stuff. All it would take is a lot of work and the ability to let go.

If you’ve read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, then you know the first step is clothing. Over the course of two days, I followed Kondo’s instructions by piling every last article of clothing in my house in one room, and then I began to purge. When I was finally done, I was somehow (dare I saw magically?) left with clothing that neatly filled my small closet and two dressers. For the first time, my clothes were all in one place—no dusty, messy boxes in the attic stuffed with out-of-season or ill-fitting clothing. As I hauled boxes and bags of discarded clothes to the thrift store, I was feeling pretty good about my new, about-to-be decluttered life, and I was eager to continue to the next step.

The only problem? The next step is books.

I’ve written before about my willingness to let books go. Every so often—usually when stacks of books are piled precariously high and threaten to consume the room—I’ll go through my shelves and pull out a few dozen books to donate. And while I do buy plenty of books, I also rely on libraries for perhaps the bulk of my reading. It doesn’t hurt that I work in a public library with a literature department roughly the size of a city block; any time I think of a novel I’d like to read, I just have to leave my desk and take a quick stroll to get it.

This is all to say that for a writer and avid reader, I’m fairly decent at not hoarding books. But while Kondo’s methods for decluttering worked wonders for my closet, I had my doubts about how her philosophy translates to books.

In her essay “On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books,” Summer Brennan points out that Kondo’s take on books doesn’t exactly align with that of the average lover of literature:

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.

…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.

All excellent points. Still, I soldiered on with the Kondo method.

I piled my books on the floor of the living room, which created a new landscape, a miniature city with skyscrapers made of Pulitzer winners and streets forged by memoir, poetry, and short story collections. While I knew Kondo’s ruthless discarding methods wouldn’t fully apply here—as Brennon writes of Kondo’s philosophy, tossing “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”—I decided to be as cutthroat as possible.

The major candidates for the donation box included: books I’d never read and honestly don’t intend to, dozens of back issues of literary journals at least a decade old, books I’d bought at literary events or readings but didn’t feel particularly connected to, and books I’d read but didn’t absolutely love.

When I was done, I had culled at least 40% of my books and probably 85% of my back issues of magazines like The New Yorker, Poets & Writers, and The Sun. (No, I didn’t actually count how many books I kept and how many I was prepared to give up. It still makes me feel a bit desperate to think about it.) Once I finished this process, I did something that would surely give Marie Kondo a heart attack: I left all the books—the keepers and the discards alike—languishing in boxes or piled on the floor for weeks while the shelves stood empty. I couldn’t bring myself to donate the discards right away because I feared I was giving away too much, and I also couldn’t stand to put the keepers back on the shelves because then I’d be forced to confront how tiny my personal library had become.

Maybe I worried that having so few books at home somehow makes me less of a writer or reader. But I happen to believe the value of books lies not in their physical form but in what they imparted to me when I read them and when I remember them now. (Do I sound a little Kondo-esque?) Besides, libraries—with their access to unlimited books without concern for cost or space— have always impacted the size of my personal collection. Finally, the prospect of packing and hauling fewer boxes books the next time I move is pretty sweet.

On the other hand, I want to support my fellow authors and even publishing at large. This is why I always buy books at readings, literary festivals, conferences, and other book events. I never regret these purchases. But as the years (and books) stacked up, I found myself with dozens of signed books that otherwise wouldn’t make my “keeper” cut for whatever reason. Getting rid of them seemed sacrilege, and yet holding on to them out of a sense of duty felt misguided.What to do?

In my next post on this topic, I’ll share what other writers had to say about parting with signed books, what I decided to do, and how my shelves ultimately shaped up—assuming I’m able to bring myself to complete the tidying process by then, that is.