Marie Kondo, the "tidying up" expert, recently got herself in a mess of trouble with book lovers when she suggested books, like all the drek we keep around our homes, could use some tidying up too. Just to be clear, "tidying up" isn't limited to straightening up the book shelves. It also refers to getting rid of stuff that no longer is of use, or to use her words, "don't spark joy."
Marie Kondo is an author who, as a young girl, was obsessed with neatening everything up. Right away, that sets her off as unusual if not unique among young people. Like people who can twist themselves into a pretzel, or become independently wealthy flipping real estate, she turned her improbable skill into a career. In 2011, she published her first book (three more have followed) entitled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the past year, that has led to a successful Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
I have a few confessions to make. I have not read her book. Likewise, I have never seen her TV show. I don't subscribe to Netflix. My standard cable subscription already gives me something like 800 channels I never watch. I see no reason to incur additional charges for yet another. In fact, before this "scandal" erupted, I had never even heard of Marie Kondo. Then again, I knew nothing about tidying up either. I needed an introduction.
Evidently, Marie Kondo stirred little controversy when she told people to toss out those old clothes they never wear, gadgets they never use, various papers and such they never look at. However, when she hinted at the same for books they never read, the sparks sure flew on social media from all of those people with books they never read. They were not sparks of joy. After all, maybe they will read them someday, just like maybe they will someday make bread with that breadmaker, or once again use the $500 exercise machine that has lain dormant since the week it arrived.
Having already committed the original sin of suggesting any books at all should be discarded, Kondo further aggravated book lovers by saying that, practicing her method, she was able to trim her collection to 30 volumes. She considers that an ideal number to own. Rather than sparking joy, that comment kindled sparks of outrage. Thirty books? That's all? In fairness to Marie Kondo, she did not say 30 books is all that anyone should own, only that this is an appropriate number for her. The test remains whether the books "spark joy," and if you have more than 30 joyful sparklers, you may keep them.
Rather than rushing to judgment, attacking or supporting Ms. Kondo, it is necessary to understand how she sees books. From her world view, her opinion makes sense.
1. Ms. Kondo is not a book collector. You probably figured that out already. She sees books as objects that convey information. That is not unreasonable, since that is their basic purpose. However, for many they take on more expansive roles. Some collect books that are physically beautiful, works of art. Whether they will ever reread the text, or even read it for the first time, is beyond the point. They are more like paintings. They "spark joy" for reasons unrelated to their textual content.
For others, it is the historic value of old texts. Coming into physical contact with a piece of history is a joy beyond simply reading the words, which can be accomplished through a reprint or even an electronic book. In these contexts, books are something like a Shaker chair. Shaker chairs were designed to be uncomfortable. Shakers believed you weren't being properly attentive to God if you were too comfortable. Their chairs were designed to make you more than uncomfortable enough to please even an angry God. No one thinks that is a proper design for a chair any more, but people still like Shaker chairs. That is not because they want to sit on them, but because they find them beautiful, or like being in touch were their history. They are a "joy" for reasons other than their original purpose.
2. Sparking joy is not the best way to describe the purpose of many books anyway. How about reference books? Do dictionaries "spark joy" in their beholders? If so, it doesn't take much to please you. Some books tell of horrible events. They don't spark much joy, but it is important to learn about the bad as well as the good. That's the old saw that people who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If learning about the horrors of war helps keep us out of another, that learning is extremely useful, even if not a lot of fun.
3. If you have books that bring no joy, will not be read, provide no access to useful information, or serve any other purpose, then Ms. Kondo has a good point. Too many of us, and I am as guilty as anyone, keep books that serve no purpose because no one else wants them, and I somehow feel there is something bad about disposing of any book at all. That is a guilt trip we should dispose of, along with the useless books. Your heirs will appreciate it if you don't stick them with disposing of your lifetime worth of junk.
Perhaps the best response to Marie Kondo came from a tweet delivered by the American Library Association, which had the good sense not to treat this too seriously. Spoke the ALA tweeter, "Librarians reading Marie Kondo's book advice: 50% are confused by the concept of a book that doesn't spark joy, 40% are fangirling about her organizational powers. And 10% are preparing for the inevitable increase of encyclopedia donations this weekend."