If Marie Kondo’s new Netflix series has taught us anything, it’s that people have really strong feelings about their books. Really, really strong feelings. “Don’t criticise my book collection or I will burn this place to the ground” level feelings.
And I sympathise. I love books. If anyone wanted to come take my copy of Middlemarch with my notes and post-its from my college thesis in it, they’d have to pry it from my cold, dead hands. Everyone should have access to books — as many as they could possibly want.
But books are not exempt from consumerism, just because they’re books.
Let’s be honest: books are a goddamn pain. One book is a great thing, but even that can be troublesome when you’re travelling and have limited space. A whole library’s worth of books? They’re incredibly heavy, they’re difficult to care for, they require a lot of space, and god forbid you want to move house, because moving books around is a nightmare. It’s also much easier for a title to get lost or overlooked in a large library, compared to a smaller, curated collection.
Yet people have taken Marie Kondo’s suggestion that someone might apply her decluttering philosophy to books as a personal affront. It’s an assault on the very concept of literacy itself! And that’s understandable. Books are supposed to be the exemption to clutter. They’re a sign of something good — being a reader, being intelligent, having curiosity in the world.
But they’re just paper, with words printed on them. And I’m gonna be quite harsh here. If you disagree with Marie Kondo in general, then go and be free. She’s not for everybody. But if you agree with Marie Kondo’s method for decluttering clothes, kitchenware and Christmas decorations, but not for books, then you need to look at your motivations. Are books really different, or are they just excluded because they’re the thing that you most like to own? Why should the person who collects more clothes than she can possibly wear be subject to criticism, but not the person who collects more books than they will ever read? After all, in an apocalypse, clothes are technically more useful than books, unless you’re hoarding apocalypse survival guides.
It feels classist and elitist. People who have lots of books are people who can afford to buy them, people who have room to keep them, and people who can afford to transport them when they move or are homeowners and so don’t need to be as flexible as people who rent.
Of course, a lot of people who have lots of books don’t have a lot of money, or space, or they move around a lot. Some of those people get enough joy from their collections to be worth the effort. But it’s possible that some people would get more joy from others ditching the judgemental crap about it being better to have lots of books, and having a manageable collection instead.
Honestly, what makes me suspect that the most is people’s own extreme reactions to Marie Kondo’s advice. She tells people to carefully consider whether an item brings them joy, and discard it if not. If we’re so upset about the idea of applying that principle to our libraries, it really begs the question of why? What are we afraid to discover?
Books are not sacred. As someone who’s seen the industry from multiple perspectives, I can absolutely guarantee it. Unsold books get pulped, often to the tune of thousands of copies. About half of all books donated to charity bookshops get recycled, because they’re unable to sell them. Libraries cull books from their shelves to keep their collections fresh and relevant to borrowers. And if we buy 10 books when we only have time to read two of them, we’re spending money unnecessarily just as much as if we buy 10 dresses then only wear two. They accumulate on our bookshelves, making us feel guilty about the money we’ve spent, making us feel inadequate as readers because we’re so far behind on our intentions. And the idea that we need huge libraries, and should keep buying books even though we can’t possibly read them all, is as much a consumerist idea as the drive to buy any other product. We’re being sold a lifestyle ideal — a different one than the one sold by makeup companies and the Apple store, but a lifestyle ideal none-the-less. And that can be oppressive and overwhelming.
I even say this as an author. I don’t want my book to be sitting on anyone’s shelf guilting them. I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to keep their copy after they’ve read it either, whether they didn’t like it, or thought it was OK, or loved it but don’t imagine they’ll ever reread it again.
There is something magical about seeing a library or a bookshop full of books, but there’s also something wonderful about looking at the display of bath bombs at Lush, and most of us don’t recreate that in our home (I think). Books, in a general, abstract sense, are important depositories of knowledge, and everyone should have access to them. But individual books themselves? They’re just objects. Wonderful objects, but objects none-the-less. And if they’re not being read, and will never be read or consulted again, they’re as dormant as unworn clothes at the bottom of the wardrobe or dusty ornaments gathered on a shelf.