A friend recently invited me to participate in a photo chain on Facebook. Maybe you’ve seen or tried it yourself. For ten days, post a picture of ten books that have had an impact on you, once a day, without explanation. I’m leaning toward getting off Facebook for good, and I’ve had some thoughts stirring about books-as-possessions so I’m using this as an opportunity to get those thoughts down in writing instead.
They’re kind of connected– the exercise of choosing a certain number of books that have impacted me, and what I want to say about the phenomenon of Marie Kondo as she relates to books.
These are all books that have had a deep impact on me. Some are from decades ago, some I read in the past year and one I just finished a handful of days ago. There are, of course, many many more. I don’t own copies of all of the books in this photo, and that’s okay with me.
I used to own many shelves of books, the equivalent of three large Tupperware totes, which followed us from rental to rental (along with three file-folder boxes of my journals and notebooks) until we finally moved into the home we now own. It’s a small home, with no garage and limited closet/storage space– which has turned out to be a big help in avoiding an unconscious accumulation of stuff.
Now my collection of books is limited to a shelf of parenting/reference books in the living room, and a small shelf (and a half?) of special books in our bedroom. That’s it. These are almost all poetry, plus a couple of essay collections and nonfiction. This shift, this whittling down of my once-large collection of books, hasn’t really impacted me in the way that I thought it would, and that’s what I want to tell you about.
I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in 2015 or so. Her book was a bestseller for years before that, and recently she’s even more popular due to a show spin-off I admittedly have not seen. I read her book sometime in the year after our first child was born, which was also when we moved into our first home, and it helped give me the energy to create more order and organization in our house at a time when I needed both. I liked the playful way Kondo writes, and the idea of possessions having a “spirit.” I liked her practice of bringing an object’s memories to mind and saying a quiet thank you before letting it go. I liked her systematic approach to sorting through items in your house and identifying which things are truly used and useful. And I especially liked the mental space I created when I finished sorting and clearing my own stockpile of things.
The book has its limitations, of course. I haven’t read much criticism of Kondo, past or present, and I’m not here to add to it. I don’t feel like I need to defend or attack her method– but then, I don’t think her book is magic, or life-changing, so maybe I don’t feel it’s an especially urgent issue. Her book is certainly not universal. There’s inherent privilege woven into the idea of minimalism as a choice in general: this is a book written for a consumer class that has an addiction to stuff. (Hi.) In addition to its target economic class, I would add that it also seems geared toward young urban people without children.
When I read her book as a new mom who hoped to have another child in a few years, it made absolutely no sense to let go of baby items and clothing that I could definitely use for the second baby. Plus, the entire project of pregnancy, birth, and babyhood requires stuff. It’s something I’ve had to accept as our family has grown, and as the tiny humans we live with grow and develop their own relationships to the things in their lives that make up their memories and assist their vivid imaginations. Kondo says if you do this thing “right,” you’ll truly never have to do it again– and in my experience that is simply not true for young families. I find myself sorting and redistributing and reevaluating my kids‘ possessions on the regular, because they just grow so dang fast I can barely keep up with what size shoes they wear and what toys/objects no longer support their current developmental phase. Those decisions don’t have much to do with what I find joyful or useful, because I’m doing this work for little ones who can’t yet make those decisions themselves. Yet for me, it’s this repetitive work that keeps me aware of my consumer habits as a parent– that shows me when I make purchasing decisions based on emotion. I constantly push back against the push toward consumerism when it comes to parenting and raising my kids, and I generally find the things I learned from Kondo to be helpful in that process, which is ultimately an exercise in awareness.
And that’s where I scratch my head a little when I hear, peripherally, the offense people seem to take with her method as it applies to books. It seems like people maybe take the whole idea of whether or not something “sparks joy” a bit too literally. I don’t remember Kondo advising readers to get rid of a book if its subject doesn’t spark joy, but rather to take stock of your books and decide if their presence as physical objects stirs something meaningful in you, and I guess I took that to include reflecting on how frequently I actually handled each book. (I could be totally off on this, though, because like a dutiful Tidier, I didn’t keep her book. I learned from it, thanked it, and passed it on.)
When I got to the books part of the process, I saw my books differently. I picked up each one and thought about what I had learned from it, and the conversations I had had with friends and teachers about it. I spent some time sitting with the feelings and memories each one brought up for me. I had amassed a ton of great books during graduate school, including a big annotated Complete Works of Shakespeare and several literary anthologies, and while these books were valuable and useful, I didn’t expect to be dipping into them again any time soon. If I wanted to, I knew I could find what I needed at the library down the street, or at any number of university and college libraries in town (the privilege of living in a book-loving well-resourced city). So while it wasn’t easy for me to let go of my books, it wasn’t that hard, either.
I reduced my library down to about 1/4 of what it had been, and carted all the boxes down to Powell’s one afternoon. The book buyer at the counter was a friendly woman who looked to be in her mid-sixties or so, and I remember her eyes lighting up when she saw some of my books, and saying, “You and I have very similar tastes.” That made me feel happy, and also a little anxious about what I was doing. Wait! These are my books. I have good taste in books! I’m giving up my taste in books! I’m making a big mistake. But I let the thoughts go, and watched her set aside the Shakespeare and a handful of others, saying she might want them for herself, and I felt a little better. My books would go to this lady, my book-taste-twin, and to other people I’d never meet who would read them. They wouldn’t just sit on a shelf and collect dust. That seemed like a much better “life” for the books, and a better use of the space in my house, too. I left the store with a slim gift card in my wallet, a stockpile of credit I could use thoughtfully, slowly, for gifts or for books I couldn’t rent from the library.
Back at home, our large floor-to-ceiling bookshelf was mostly empty. I realized how much of that space had been taken up by my books, and while my husband eventually did his own sorting and purging, my books’ absence cleared the way for my daughter’s books, her basket of musical instruments, and other objects we used every day in the living room. It was like I could more clearly see the phase of life I was in, and the things that mattered to me most in the moment. That’s what sparked joy for me– not the books’ absence or presence but the feeling I had of being more firmly present in my life raising an active little girl. I loved the chapter I was in, and I felt that I hadn’t lost anything in letting go of the books. I still had everything I’d learned from them and from my life experiences during the years when I owned them.
Some book-lovers see the bookshelf as a last frontier when it comes to parenting, and the inevitable pressure to cede the real estate of your living room and your time to your kids– to their stuff and their needs. Some friends will say that keeping their books is a way to hold onto the fullness of who they are, their adult interests and the parts of themselves that aren’t parents. I get that that a bookshelf could be a meaningful place to express that, but it’s not for me.
I used to look at my books and see things that weren’t really there. My “good taste.” Memories. Knowledge. Maybe on some level I thought I needed them in order to be me. There was an energy around them, but it wasn’t really helpful. It was more of a weight, and letting go of that weight made me feel physically lighter and ready to imagine the present and future more creatively.
Sometimes I’ll go to the houses of friends with walls and walls of books, and for a split second I’ll feel a twinge of regret. I’ll see books I used to own and flash back on the period of my life when I was deep in a conversation– one between my spirit and the ideas within the pages of those books. I recognize that the emotion I feel is more connected to my own mortality rather than the physical object of the book. I’m responding to nostalgia over a set of memories, and holding onto the book itself can’t bring that time back. Maybe, in a weird way, I’m grateful for the way the absence of my old books reminds me that I’m only here on the planet for a short time.
In any case, as my bookshelf has changed, my book-buying habits have also changed. I now borrow a lot of what I read from the library. I choose to buy books written by friends, and I make an effort to buy new books written by people of color, rather than borrowing them from the library, a tiny act of allyship. When I do buy books, I try to buy them from independent booksellers. In general, I feel less attached to books-as-objects than I used to, more likely to pass them on to other readers when I’ve finished with them.
And that’s what I have to say about that.
How about you? What are your book-buying and book-possessing habits?