Tidying Up With Marie Kondo has landed on Netflix, and it seems people are losing if not their possessions, then their minds. In what is essentially Queer Eye for mild hoarders, the organisational guru is ruthless about cluttered bookshelves – and book-lovers are furious. Books, like everything else in Kondo’s immaculate world, must “spark joy” to qualify for a spot in your home, or face the recycling bin. Social media accepted the message with characteristic tolerance and nuance. The professional cleaner-upper was compared with racist and misogynist-for-hire Jordan Peterson, while furious gifs went viral, and a tweet insisting that Kondo be ignored on the subject of books was liked 22,000 times. Sure, ignoring is fine, but such hysteria over the mere suggestion of getting rid of books you no longer touch, never mind open and read? It’s a terrible pose and people need to get over themselves.
Let me be clear: I like <stuff> more than the next woman. I have countless books over 20 years old and I’ve kept my business card from every job I’ve ever had, and each edition of Just Seventeen 1984 through to 1989. I attach absurd sentimental value to objects and always have, to the point where I recently searched the house for a torn envelope because I couldn’t bear to put a card into recycling without its former buddy for company (seriously, I’m not normal). I disagree with Kondo’s belief that books must make us feel joyful and represent our values. The point of books is not only to make us happy but also to challenge our way of thinking, offer different perspectives, tell uncomfortable truths.
Certainly, books can be beautiful and frequently worth treasuring. But in expressing shock and horror at throwing any away, the implication is that each book on someone’s shelf is so significant, so enriching and special, that to make it leave home is akin to sending one’s children off to boarding school. Nonsense. Whose bookshelf bows from the weight of only high literature, classics and Man Booker winners? What’s more, why would anyone aspire to that? It’s normal and human to have, say, some Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen and Emily Brontë right next to an exposé on wellness scammer Belle Gibson and the ghostwritten memoir of Gary Barlow (guilty on both counts). Putting a lower property value on one-time pulpy reads and passing them on to a doctor’s surgery, charity shop or friend is perfectly commendable. Pretending you’re too good for them and treating your bookshelves like some X-ray of a fine and erudite brain is just plain naff.
Whose bookshelf bows from the weight of only high literature, classics and Man Booker winners? What’s more, why would anyone aspire to that?
Books are fundamentally content, not objects. What separates them from much other great art is that they are interactive, living, useable texts, not static museum pieces too precious for everyday life. Some are bound to be keepers, their ideas so apposite, meaningful or influential, that just knowing they are near is of comfort. Everyone has physical books that mean so much more than binding, spine and paper. But books don’t need to matter forever to matter at all. They can serve their purpose – whether to entertain, thrill, offer practical guidance or insight – then be moved along to make way for new memories.
Marie Kondo’s obsession with the inner feelings of my socks and turning my home into an IKEA showroom does nothing for me, personally – I find moderate clutter cosy. But at the same time, having grown up in relative squalor with a father who never threw anything away – from clothes and books to newspapers and plastic bags – I do know that if you keep everything, you value nothing. Special items, such as a trinket belonging to your grandmother, a book given to you by an important teacher or great love, an ancient mixtape made painstakingly and lovingly by a schoolfriend – none are honoured appropriately and deservingly, because they’re jostling for your attention alongside a sand-filled bonkbuster and a lamp you’ll never fix.
A fond memory of a book, song, painting, person or anything else should not automatically grant it permanent residency in your home unless you prize the past over the future. Last year, I almost convinced myself that, in throwing away a double of Morcheeba’s Big Calm, I was throwing away with it a period in the late 1990s of deep personal meaning – even though I no longer play CDs or smoke weed, have little desire to listen to folky trip-hop again and I’ve long since parted company with almost everyone who listened to it with me. They, like it, mattered at the time and, to an extent, always will – that doesn’t mean I should live with them.
Sending the doorstop that is A Little Life to Age UK and downloading it on Kindle gave me back a good three inches of space, but committing liticide can be a hugely positive move in not just decluttering your home, but your brain. After umpteen aborted attempts to fall in love with books other people love (The Best Of Everything and The Group, for but two examples), I’ve come to accept that life is too short. There are millions of books and not enough days to reread all those that appeal, or even read those that don’t grab you in the first three chapters. It’s fine to not finish a book and pass it on to someone whose week, or even life, may be changed by it. It’s OK to reclaim that space for something that may do the same for you. And, yes, it sparks joy to finally have somewhere to put it.