The latest TV series by charming, tidy-up guru Marie Kondo has landed on Netflix and while we are all in love with the vibrant folk featured in her show, in January I accidentally entered the damning territory of disagreeing with Kondo’s philosophy — in a tweet that went viral. For while I’d heed Kondo’s “Konmari method” for habits such as folding T-shirts, she is woefully misguided when she says we should get rid of books that don’t give us “joy”.
“Do NOT listen to Marie Kondo or Konmari in relation to books. Fill your apartment & world with them. I don’t give a shite if you throw out your knickers and Tupperware but the woman is very misguided about BOOKS. Every human needs a v extensive library not clean, boring shelves,” I tweeted.
Present tally among the 25,000-plus tweets replying to mine: 65 per cent agree with me, 20 per cent disagree, 3 per cent think we are fighting over a football team and 5 per cent insist Kondo’s position is way more nuanced than I give credit for. The rest insist I am a joyless frump. But be assured that this joyless frump will not be following Kondo’s advice, to essentially hold my books against my teats and left ventricle to see if they spark joy. If my own novels are anything to go by, I should be slightly concerned if the most recent, Martin John, sparked joy in anyone other than a convicted sex offender or a forensic psychiatrist.
In one video, Kondo helps a woman declutter her books by “waking them up”. Surely the way to wake up any book is to open it up and read it aloud, not tap it with fairy finger motions — but this is the woo-woo, nonsense territory we are in. Once the books are split into keep and get-gone piles, Marie and the woman thank the books for serving their purpose.
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.
We live in a frantic, goal-obsessed, myopic time. Everything undertaken has to have a purpose, outcome or a destination, or it’s invalid. But art doesn’t care a noodle about your Apple watch, your fitness goals, active lifestyle, right swipes, career and surrender on black pudding. Art will be around far longer than Kondo’s books remain in print. Art exists on its own terms and untidy timeline.
As for culling one’s unread books — while that may be essential for reducing fire and tripping hazards, it is certainly not a satisfying engagement with the possibilities of literature. (Unless it’s self-help or golf, in which case, toss it.) Success is, eventually, actually reading your unread books, or at least holding on to them long enough that they have the chance to satisfy, dissatisfy or dement you. Unread books are imagined reading futures, not an indication of failure.
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.
I read in a variety of ways — ebooks, audiobooks — and never mind donating or sharing books. But I can’t imagine what a blank collection of physical books I’d be left with if they had to spark joy. (Goodbye Jelinek, Bernhard and Kafka, hello books with photos of hippo feet.) When I look at my shelves, I marvel at how random books have ended up beside each other. Some are on my shelf on the strength of just one line or a paragraph. Some are gifts, others I found discarded in the street. But every purchase of a book is a gesture of faith in the writer who wrote it. Writers are nothing without readers. Rather than following Kondo’s rules, I’d like to suggest another: it should be obligatory that all living spaces come with built-in bookshelves. (And a hammock.)
–Guardian News & Media Ltd