Before her Netflix series, patron saint of minimalism Marie Kondo first entered our lives through her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, teaching hoarders and people struggling to clean house how to let go of objects that didn’t bring them joy. With the recent release of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, suddenly everyone was following her mantra, clutching household items to see if there was a spark and, if not, cathartically discarding them.
I watched this obsession sweep through my social media feeds, my friends posting pictures of to-be-donated loot and freshly organized homes. Everyone buzzed with this downsizing energy, until they discovered an aspect of the KonMari Method that didn’t spark any joy whatsoever.
In keeping with her philosophy, Marie Kondo shared that she keeps her collection of books to “about thirty volumes at any one time,” recommending to her readers and viewers that they do the same. But she also acknowledged that “the act of picking up and choosing objects is extremely personal” and that people should go with their gut when it comes to their books—because unlike other clutter, books can serve as conduits for knowledge and imagination. But in the game of telephone that is the internet, something got misinterpreted somewhere and everyone assumed she meant everyone should only have 30 books. No exceptions.
The literary internet exploded: “You can have my books when you pry them from my cold dead hands!” Blogs and opinion pieces proliferated, full of indignant readers decrying this proclamation. A few voices finally managed to cut through the noise and set the record straight, but the manic frenzy had already exposed readers for what we really are: possessive lunatics who could let go of a lot of things, but refused to part with our books. Literary Gollums that wouldn’t let anyone take away our preciouses.
I understood and was sympathetic to this reaction; I too cherish my books. I’ve loved to read since childhood. But I also understood Marie Kondo’s point of view and rationale for keeping her book collection to a minimum. For the past few years, I’ve had, at most, five to 10 actual books in my personal library. Yes, you read that correctly, five to 10 books.
Shortly after college, I moved abroad. With a small moving budget and no job prospects, I had to discard most of my worldly possessions. To that end, I donated the vast majority of my rather large book collection. I did keep a few titles to take abroad, such as my signed copy of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a collection of haunting short stories by Jean McNeil.
I lived in Chile for three years, where books are very expensive, incomes are low, and the selection of English-language books is subpar. I knew I would eventually return to the States or move elsewhere—and when I did, I would once again need to downsize my library. So, during my time in Chile, I mostly abstained from buying physical books, relying instead on e-books.
At the end of 2018, the time came for another move and so, with a heavy heart, I turned to my solitary bookcase. On the top shelf sat my meager collection, the other shelves used to display photos and tchotchkes. There were 15 volumes in all: some new, some not.
I took down each book. I fanned the pages through my fingers, held it to my face, inhaled the scent. Stroking the spines, I recalled my personal history with each book: Where did I buy it, when did I read it, how did it impact me? Did it bring me joy?
In short: yes. They all brought me joy. So, that clearly couldn’t be my defining question. But what was the defining question and which books should stay with me?
There were some obvious keepers: the David Sedaris. A few books that would remind me of my time in Chile: a book about the art of Chilean bread, another of native folktales. The Jean McNeil.
Then came the cuts. The books I didn’t want to discard, but weren’t as special or important as others. The ones I hadn’t enjoyed. The titles that had made the trip to South America but wouldn’t return: my Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example. While I still loved the story, I no longer felt the need to bring the book back with me.
Some of my picks stayed the same even after years had passed, while others changed just as I and my tastes had changed. But, as I placed the books I was donating or selling into a separate pile, I noticed a sense of sorrow blanketing the proceedings. I was mourning my books. Why?
Why are we so attached to our books? As I held and decided the fate of each book, I kept coming back to this question. Why was I attached to these physical objects? Paper, binding glue, a cover. Fairly simple and commonplace. I knew I could easily find replacements for my discarded books, and that, with the exception of my David Sedaris—which he had autographed to me personally—the true connection I felt was to the stories themselves. The books were mere vessels. So why didn’t I want to part with them?
Readers, especially “avid” readers, aren’t exactly known for our rationality. We collect, covet, and guard books the way a dragon does jewels. There’s even a word for having too many books: tsundoku. We say it’s about constantly craving new stories and adventures. Discovering new authors. We justify the expenditures as the desire to financially support writers, publishers, our own neighborhood bookshop.
The simple answer for our attachment to books is that it’s about emotion. Reading a story is a deeply personal and intimate act: connecting or empathizing with the struggles of the characters; being swept along by the narrative; losing yourself in the descriptions of a landscape. And when our feelings get involved, rationality goes out the door. We conflate these physical objects with their stories —and our emotional reactions to those stories—making it harder to separate the two. Any object can be imbued with meaning by circumstance or association, but books more so because of what they contain and how stories speak to us.
“But it’s not just the story!” you may say. “It’s also about the book itself: the feel of its feathered pages, that old- or new-book smell, the weight of it in your bag.” Yes, a book is a divine object, timeless and yet finite in its physical state. A book can be lost, damaged, burned, but the story lives on. Maybe the book was a present from someone special. Maybe it was bought and read during a key life moment. All this can make it harder to separate the raw physicality of the book from the emotional pull of the story. The book is the story and the story is the book. And that’s the complex answer. I too love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but does that mean that I need it? I need the story, that’s why I bought the book. Shouldn’t it matter more the why of reading, not the how?
Living abroad and trying to keep my collection to a minimum while staying up to date with bestsellers and popular reads, I had to turn to e-books, which was a significant departure for me. I’d never been a fan of e-books, and at first I resisted them. I missed the feel of a book, the heft, the sense of satisfaction of slotting a bookmark into place, watching the slow march of pages falling from right to left as I read through the book, accumulating as more and more of the story was laid bare to me. But as I read more ebooks, I gradually understood and embraced their uses: they take up only virtual space, they’re cheaper, and infinitely easier to transport. Perfect for someone who isn’t ready to put down roots like me.
But many lit-lovers scoff at people who use e-readers or who have small book collections, arguing that they’re not real readers or not as “serious”—as if it’s a competition. And much of the culture around literature supports this obsessive book hoarding. The former Shelfari’s Compulsive Book Hoarders website (now merged with GoodReads) required members to have 1,000 books in their personal libraries before signing up. Readers on Instagram display their packed shelves with pride. We love to brag about how many books we have.
So, we can only be good readers and love books if we have a massive personal library? This exposes a blatantly materialist and classist side of book culture. When considering this, I’m reminded of a popular John Waters quote: “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” When I was younger I took this flawed concept to heart: I shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t have books because that means they don’t read, and if they don’t read they’re….what? The implication is that if someone doesn’t read, doesn’t have shelves of books in their home to display their intelligence, they’re uneducated and unsophisticated. It’s a very morally superior view, snobbish and condescending. And I reject that.
I’ve lived in a country where most people can’t afford to buy many—if any—books, and libraries aren’t readily accessible. But that doesn’t mean the people I met weren’t astute, engaged, thoughtful individuals. I have a partner who has never read the Harry Potter series—something I once considered a deal breaker due to their childhood significance for me—because they’re too expensive. The ability to own books does not dictate worth or intelligence.
I’ve completely reevaluated my relationship to books and reading in the past few years. I’ve constantly questioned my impulse to buy books, knowing that I’d likely need to discard them, weighing my desire to travel and save money against my love of books. I’ve had to find the balance. I’ve had to fight the urge to accumulate more and more, and instead prioritize story over form.
At the end of the day, I still struggle with it. I will probably always prefer real books. I want to buy a book at every bookstore I visit. My dream home does include a giant library with a cozy reading nook. But my attitude toward reading has matured. I have rejected elitist attitudes. I’ve gotten rid of hundreds of books in my short time on this earth, but that doesn’t mean I love books any less. It means I’m able to let objects go while still treasuring the lessons and morals they gave me. The important thing is that people read and learn. While I hated selling my books when preparing to leave Chile, I loved that I could sell them to other readers. Reading is a solitary act, but the love of reading and literature is communal. How stories get passed down has evolved many times, from spoken word to papyrus scrolls to paper to e-books. But what books convey to readers remains the same: a story, an idea, a transport to somewhere new.
If you want to have a giant library, have a giant library. Or not. It’s okay to only have a few books. Or no books. Or e-books. Let go of books or hold onto them. Do what works for you, just as I found a method that works for me, a flighty reader who has learned to appreciate the convenience of modern reading technology. What sparks joy for me is the act of reading itself and the pleasure and reflection it provides.
Image credit: Unsplash/Ed Robertson.
Hands down, the best book I read all year was Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by CUNY professor Morris Dickstein. This fresh take on literature, film, photography and music exhibits Dickstein’s mastery of the Depression era’s cultural lodestones. He discusses the influences and intricacies of dozens of literary works, including those by John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, Nathanael West, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James T. Farrell, Clifford Odets, James Agee and others, which illustrated several general themes of 30s culture: discovery of the common man; loss of faith in the American system; adoption of communist, socialist or fascist poses; and rejection of the traditional success model that had seduced Americans since colonial times.
Dickstein also reawakens interest in several authors who are largely forgotten today, such as Michael Gold, author of Jews without Money. His discourse on Gold and the “proletarian novel,” which had a brief heyday in the early 1930s, explains how 30s writers returned to sociological subjects explored at the turn of the century by Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane and largely rejected their immediate modernist forbears like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, who focused obsessively on inner psychology. (Dickstein acknowledges that William Faulkner’s work defies such easy categorization, combining dark psychological insights with devastating social portraits.) Emphasis on social criticism intensified throughout the decade, culminating in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, America’s greatest social protest novel. Dickstein is on less-solid footing when describing 30s film and music; calling backstage dramas like A Star Is Born cautionary tales about the perils of success is rather self-evident. But Dickstein makes interesting observations about pre-Code gangster movies starring James Cagney, Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson, which he considers ironic takes on the Horatio Alger myth. Despite this reservation, Dancing in the Dark is a tour de force of criticism, hearkening readers to a not-very-distant time when writers, filmmakers, photographers and musicians concentrated less on ego and self-expression and more on equality and public spiritedness. It is a book that I found utterly engrossing, even unputdownable.
The most interesting book I read in 2009 was an oddball compendium of poems, dialogues and anecdotes by C.A. Conrad titled Advanced Elvis Course. Much of the book describes the poet’s pilgrimage to Graceland, Mecca for Elvis Presley fans. Incidents from Elvis’ life, a tour of his private jet, reflections on his movies, excerpts from Priscilla Presley’s memoir, and, more seriously, a visit to Meditation Garden, his burial site, spawn writings that contemplate Elvis’ multiple dimensions. Many dwell, unsurprisingly, on Elvis’ sex appeal. In “More than Anything,” Conrad wishes he could obtain permission to “spend one night in His bedroom, next to His bed, / naked, dressed in a body condom, / imagining I’m his happy little sperm / … / blissfully shot from / His hardened, kingly shaft.” What makes Elvis Presley such an icon are the many interpretations to which he has been subject; he is so entangled in history and myth that he has become virtually unknowable. Conrad intuits this fact completely, and, like other Elvis watchers, he interprets Elvis in his own way. Conrad imagines Elvis through personal encounters with the man’s songs, history, residence and, not least, fan reaction. Conrad’s genre-defying book is a biography of sorts, telling the story of a simple but supremely talented Mississippi boy who left behind a complicated legacy that curiously endures in his followers’ collective memory.
2009’s funnest book was The Worst Book I Ever Read, an anthology of writings from the Unbearables, a loose confederation of New York poets and writers, edited by Ron Kolm, et al. Several pieces consist of pointed criticisms of classic works or books by modern masters. For example, the Bible receives a harsh rebuke in “Holy Shit! My Gripes with the Bible” by John G. Rodwan, Jr., who calls it “[a]n awful book … a mishmash of so much balderdash that I can only think it is widely revered because it is hardly read.” One-time Unbearable and current Los Angeles Times books editor, David L. Ulin, tears into modern literature’s most sacred cow: “Ulysses is without a doubt the worst important book I’ve ever read,” he says, “a mess of arrogant self-indulgence that refuses to hang together, that has more to do with the ego of its author than with the organic urgency of its plot.” Contemporary authors of dubious merit or unwarranted reputation likewise receive withering abuse. “Joyce Carol Oates is more prolific than a brood sow,” declares Jessica Willis. “She’s always putting out something fat and new. But not new.” In a rant titled “Fuck You, David Sedaris,” Marvin J. Taylor denounces Sedaris’ shallowness, on exhibit in Me Talk Pretty One Day, which “at first appears naughty, but is not threatening, so the dull-minded listeners of NPR can feel self-satisfied that they are sufficiently hip and non-homophobic when they listen to the weaselly voice of Sedaris as he lisps his way through his turgid prose.” Lacking any pretense to civility, the book’s contributors let loose unsparing, profane invective against their targets. The Worst Book I Ever Read says things about authors and books that few readers would dare say out loud, let alone publish, defiantly and hilariously raising a middle finger at literary lameness and publishing torpor.