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Decluttering Sounds Nice, but Keep Your Hands Off My Piles of Books

  • A page from “The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story” by Marie Kondo; illustrations by Yuko Uramoto.

The Washington Post
Published: 1/11/2019 10:00:38 PM
Modified: 1/11/2019 10:00:52 PM

Marie Kondo is back, and this time it’s personal.

With The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the anti-clutter guru persuaded millions of people to clean out their closets. This month, she’s taken the KonMari Method to television with a Netflix show called Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. And suddenly people have noticed the dark side of Kondo’s war on stuff: She hates books.

All books.

That signed first edition of Catcher in the Rye.

That poetry collection your husband gave you before he was shipped off to Iraq.

The Bible that’s been in your family since 1784.

Consign them all to the flames and breathe in those sparks of joy!

Kondo may not have gone that far, but you wouldn’t know it from the response on social media, where defenders of books have pushed back hard against Kondo and her shelf-tidying message.

What Kondo actually said is, perhaps, less than outrageous. In Episode 5, “From Students to Improvements,” she told a young, moderately cluttered couple, “Take every single book into your hands and see if it sparks joy for you.”

This is Kondo’s fundamental advice, which she applies to everything from mismatched socks to old Tupperware. But it’s advice that seems particularly problematic when applied to literature. The first challenge is volume. I have a single cabinet full of chipped mugs, but I have a house full of books — thousands of books. To take every single book into my hands and test it for sparkiness would take years. And during that time, so many more books will pour in. (How do you say “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Japanese?) In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo advises deciding the fate of each book only by touch. “Make sure you don’t start reading it,” she says. “Reading clouds your judgment.”

But reading that sentence clarified my judgment of her.

Admittedly, things were not always so bad in my house. As Hemingway said of bankruptcy, it happened in two ways: “Gradually, then suddenly.” (I think that’s in The Sun Also Rises. Give me a minute — I have a copy around here somewhere.)

About 20 years ago when I stopped teaching, I gave away almost all my academic books: hundreds of critical editions, collections of essays and literary biographies. It felt like severing a limb, but at the time I needed some kind of dramatic gesture to convince myself I was ready to start a different life.

As a book critic, I began with a clean (or cleaner) slate. Like real adults, my wife and I bought two cherry bookcases and put them in the living room filled only with great expectations. I was judicious about what books I let into the house.

When we ran out of room, we bought cheaper bookcases from Ikea and Target and placed them in other rooms. A certain natural order held firm: reviewed books, favorite books, children’s books, religious books, books saved for gifts, books saved for gag gifts. Books neither of us wanted and could not imagine anybody ever wanting ended up in a box near the front door, and when it was full, a charity group was summoned to haul it away.

But a few years ago, we were hit with two simultaneous disasters: I was appointed a judge for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and our basement flooded. All the carefully organized books in my office had to be immediately moved upstairs in no particular order. And then the Pulitzer submissions began arriving — by the hundreds. Some days, my wife and I could barely drag the boxes off the front stoop into the house. Books started piling up in the kitchen. Under the table. On the table. On all horizontal surfaces. Stalagmites of books rose from the living room floor. Streams of books converged into rivers that emptied into oceans of literature.

It’s not ideal, but my wife and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re not after sparks of joy — we want to swim in wonder.

“Books are the reflection of your thoughts and values,” Kondo says, and she’s right, but then she’s so wrong when she goes on to tell her television audience: “By tidying books, it will show you what kind of information is important to you at this moment.”

That’s the problem with Kondo’s method. It presumes a kind of self-consciousness that no real lover of literature actually feels. We don’t keep books because we know “what kind of information is important to us at this moment.” We keep them because we don’t know.

So take your tidy, magic hands off my books, if you please. That great jumble of fond memories, intellectual challenges and future delights doesn’t just spark, it warms the whole house.

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