WAIT, STOP! DON’T YELL AT ME JUST YET!
I promise this post doesn’t mean I’m suggesting you have to throw out all the books in your house, I just love a click-bait title.
This post is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, probably since Marie Kondo’s TV show on Netflix, Tidying Up, where she suggested that people should own no more than 30 books. Needless to say, the internet lost their collective minds. Like, lost it completely (and got quite racist about it too) over this woman saying, “Hey, maybe you should own less books??” Which is what I’m going to say too.
I just wanted to acknowledge that I’m in no way suggesting that you should follow my advice, or that you’re wrong if you don’t. I also want to mention that I come from a quite privileged, middle-class background and I’m already so incredibly lucky to purchase books, usually whenever I feel like I can (although sometimes I’ve had to stop myself because I can’t afford it), and so this post might not relate to everyone. Please don’t take anything I’m about to say as an attack on you or your spending choices. This is just my opinion about book owning.
Now let’s get on to the discussion!
A couple of months ago, I spring-cleaned by bookshelf. For those of you who haven’t seen my shelf before, it’s a pretty big cherry mahogany bookshelf with four shelves in it and a massive chest attached to the bottom of it. I love it: it’s the kind of bookshelf I’ve dreamed about, and I especially love the inclusion of a chest. Feels like something from a fairytale.
But as I was going through my chest of books, I came across a whole bunch of books that I’m just not interested in anymore. And even some where I questioned my reasoning behind buying it in the first place. So I packed up all the books I no longer wanted, which ended up filling one massive box, and left the box in my rumpus room. A few weeks later, I did the same to a bookshelf in my rumpus room, which is shared by my family, but which a majority of the books on there belonged to me. I ended up filling another massive box full of books I didn’t want anymore. Then my father reminded me that I had four other boxes of books in the garage that I mean to get rid of years ago, but which have sat in the garage instead.
I was faced with a massive issue: I had six boxes full of books I didn’t want anymore, books that I probably shouldn’t have purchased in the first place, and not a single idea what to do with them. I should also mention that these boxes filled with books have been accumulating for over ten years. So there were books in there that I read as a 14 year old which I’m not interested in anymore, books I meant to read but didn’t get the chance and didn’t care for anymore, plus a bunch of books I ended up hating.
I had all these books sitting in boxes, for years, intending to get rid of them, but I never actually got around to doing so. I wondered what was stopping me. I clearly had no interest in these books anymore (they’ve been sitting around in boxes for so long) so why did I still have them?
Why was I so scared to get rid of my books?
The way many readers like myself view books is with a kind of emotional attachment. For many years, books were there for me when nobody else was. At the sake of revealing too much about myself, the years I battled with anxiety and depression (still do, but now I’ve gotten proper help), books were the only way I could cope with my debilitating mental illnesses. I would lose myself in words, in characters and fantastical worlds, because it was easier to focus on someone else’s problems rather than my own.
And that worked, for a while. But material objects can’t be the only way you interact with the world. At the end of the day, they are just material objects, while you’re a living, breathing real person.
Of course, this kind of reasoning isn’t applicable to everyone. There are plenty of people out there who don’t form weird attachments to the characters of books to help navigate their illness in the way that I do. Perhaps people just have a kind of sentimental attachment to books instead.
Books are incredibly comforting, and no one wants to give up something that brings them comfort. But books are also meant to stimulate you intellectually, make you question the world around you, make you challenge your own beliefs — I can understand wanting to surround yourself with objects that do that, objects that allow you and your friends to converse and question.
When I go into a bookstore, I’m overcome with a lot of feelings that I don’t even know how to begin to explain. There’s a part of me that wants to touch as many books as I can, to buy them and take them home, and display them and (eventually) read them. The smell of books in a bookstore can be an overwhelming one and has led to me purchasing a whole bunch of books that I regretted days later … but couldn’t bring myself to return. Because, books.
But when does this kind of book-owning turn into stockpiling?
There’s a beautiful, untranslatable Japanese word that encapsulates everything I feel about holding onto books: tsundoku. Like I said, there’s no direct translation but essentially it means “buying books and letting them pile up, but not reading them.” And that’s something that I myself, and I’m sure many people, can relate to.
It’s this kind of book hoarding that I think we can, and should, all learn to move away from. I’m not about to KonMari your bookshelf and claim that you should only own 30 books, I’m just saying that you shouldn’t hold onto books that don’t bring you any happiness. Or, to borrow from Marie Kondo, “Don’t spark joy.”
I’m not the type of person that believes that books that bring someone happiness are necessarily fun genre books that are to be read for pleasure, not stimulation. That was a big thing people took issue with when Marie Kondo suggested you only keep books that “spark joy”. According to one journalist, “Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.”
^^^ Things not to do when someone kindly suggests you get rid of some of your books.
I don’t think that Marie Kondo was suggesting you only keep books that “placate [you] with pleasure”; I think she meant something as simple as “just keep the books you like”. For example, I absolutely love the book The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and I own a copy of it. This book does not bring me pleasure: in fact, it made me cry and I don’t think I have it in me to read it again, but I still get joy from that book because I love it. And it’s taken me a very long way to get to the ultimate point of this blog post, which is: keep books you like, get rid of the rest.
As I said, the internet went bonkers at Marie Kondo for daring to suggest something like this, so please don’t get bonkers at me 😅. I could have easily said something like: “unhaul your damn books!” and called it a day. But I want to explain to you why I think it’s beneficial and necessary for you to only keep the books you like.
I laughed at the notion that one would ever give away books. Don’t all books spark joy? Jettisoning my books felt like clipping off pieces of my soul.
Until it didn’t.
I’m not sure what changed in early 2017. I wish I had a blinding epiphany or even an interesting accident to report—say, being trapped for days under a pile of books. But I found myself looking at my shelves and realising they were not, in fact, a mirror. If anything, they were a carefully curated and alphabetized lie. I owned dozens, if not hundreds, of books I had yet to read. True, I had chosen them—I planned/hoped to read them—but was I really that different from someone who purchased books in bulk in order to arrange them for maximum decorative impact?
Who cared what my books had to say about me? What did I have to say about my books?
— Laura Lippman, This is What Happened When I Finally Got Rid of Hundreds of Books
One of my close friends has made it her life mission to own every single book she ever reads. I’m not about to dispute her right to do that — it’s her money, she can do what she likes — but that doesn’t mean I understand it. As I mentioned earlier, I have a deep emotional attachment to books and characters, and sometimes that can go in the complete opposite direction: sometimes I end up hating a book so much, even looking at it makes me sick. So I personally couldn’t imagine decorating my home and my shelves with a collection of books that I hate, especially when those books might contain problematic themes. (I am not suggesting that books that feature “problematic issues” are all bad, they’re actually needed, but sometimes authors do such a shoddy job of explaining it).
For example, one of my most hated books of all time is Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov, a book that romanticises a paedophilic relationship between an older man and a thirteen year old girl. The thought of having that book anywhere near me makes me think about ripping it up. I don’t actually own that book, but if I did, I’d give it away in a heartbeat! Which brings me back to my bookshelves and deciding to get rid of almost half of my book collection.
Hopefully at this point, you’ve understood a little bit about where I’m coming from. I personally don’t understand the point of owning books you, a) don’t like, b) have no intention of reading, or c) regret buying and just keep it around for the sake of it. I don’t personally understand the desire for tsundoku, or maybe it’s better to say I no longer do.
I’m not a minimalist like Marie Kondo by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think she has some amazing points about material culture and why we feel the need to hold onto so many things, particularly books.
So I took a real good hard look at my books a few weeks ago and ruthlessly ripped into them. I went through each box and the bookshelves I own and thought seriously about each book on there.
I asked myself four questions:
- If it was a book I had read before, was I likely to read it again?
- If it was a book I had bought years ago and hadn’t read it, was I likely to pick it up within the next year?
- Is it a book I regretted buying?
- Is it a book I hated?
If I answered “No” to the first two questions, and then “Yes” to the last two questions, then I got rid of the book.
Perhaps I was little too harsh: I did end up donating all 6 boxes, save a handful of books I changed my mind on. But I don’t regret my decision for a moment. Now that my home is cleared of unread piles of books that was only getting bigger, I have much more energy because of this cleared space. I also feel less guilty about having all those unread books sitting around, for no reason, especially as so many of them I didn’t like anymore or no longer had any intention of reading them.
So I offer this piece of advice for anyone who is feeling similar: break that sentimental or emotional attachment you have to books. While a book can transport you to a new world or be there for you during a difficult time, at the end of the day, it’s just some pages glued together and bound. It’s a material object that doesn’t actually have a bearing in your life. I love my books — I really, really do — but I just don’t think its viable to keep around a bunch of books you don’t like anymore. Get rid of them by donating them or selling them, and then begin to learn to buy books you 100% know you’re going to love!
I want to end this post by getting you to conduct a small exercise for me: if you were moving home tomorrow to a much smaller place and you could only bring a small collection of books with you, which ones would you leave behind? If you’re willing to part them, then deep down you know it’s a book you don’t actually care that much for. So the ones you choose to leave behind are the ones I suggest you start getting rid of first.
What are your thoughts? Are you like me, someone who only owns books they love? Or are you someone who enjoys collecting books? Let me know!