When anything gets as big as Marie Kondo there’s bound to be a backlash. Only the one against the Japanese tidying superstar comes from an unusual group -- book lovers. Since the explosive popularity of her Netflix show, bibliophiles have been griping online that no one, not even Kondo, is going to lay a hand on their towering piles of books.

"Keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off my book piles, Marie Kondo," was the headline of one such article in the Washington Post, while novelist Anakana Schofield opined in the UK Guardian that Kondo is "woefully misguided when she says we should get rid of books that don’t give us joy,"

“Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us,” she huffs in response to Kondo’s famous dictum to only keep objects that "spark joy" for you.

So are all of us book lovers going to be forced to choose between tidy, joyful homes and our libraries full of tear-jerking masterpieces? Are we going to have to give up all the books we haven’t found time to read? Calm down, not at all. As Kondo explained in an interview at the 92nd Street Y, it is entirely possible to be both a proud book hoarder and a fan of the KonMari method.

Joy doesn’t just mean kittens and rainbows.

The whole kerfuffle, Kondo explains, is basically down to a (perhaps willful) misunderstanding of the idea of "sparking joy." Joy might make English listeners think of rainbows and kittens and multicolor balloons, but Kondo isn’t a child, and she doesn’t have such a simplistic and cotton candy concept in mind when she asks if an item sparks joy for a client. Instead, what Kondo is trying to get at when she asks about joy is an individual’s personal values.

"The point of the KonMari Method is to figure out your sense of value, what do you hold most important? So if your reaction is anger that you have to let go of books, that’s great because that means for you books are invaluable," Kondo says through her interpreter, Marie Iida.

A grim social commentary that illuminated your understanding of some important issue can’t really be called called joyful in the simplest sense, but if it stirs appreciation in you when you pick it up, then go ahead and keep it. There’s no inherent contradiction between KonMari and a huge bookcase.

The only problem is if you haven’t examined the value of your books and are holding on them due to inertia or clutter overwhelm. But, in that case, I think we can all agree going through your hoard to make sure you’re only keeping what you value makes sense.  

Tons of books you haven’t read are fine too.

How about books you haven’t read? They can’t possibly spark emotion like that sad but gorgeous novel that turned you on to literature in high school or that nonfiction account of faraway human suffering that suddenly made the world seem smaller and less lonely. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have value.

As I’ve pointed in out in a previous column, all those books you haven’t found time to read, both act as a reference for the future and remind you of your ignorance, keeping you intellectually humble. If that’s service you value from your physical environment, it seems to me that Kondo would be happy for you to keep them (though, OK, she’d probably nudge you set up orderly bookcases to display them).

And as a New York Times piece responding to my earlier column pointed out, Kondo isn’t the only aspect of Japanese culture to acknowledge the value of unread books. In fact the Japanese language actually has a word for that stack of to-reads on your bedside table or floor -- tsundoku. "My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku," confesses Kevin Mims in the Times piece.

Mims shouldn’t feel bad about this ratio in front of his Japanese friends (or Marie Kondo), according to Andrew Gerstle, a professor of Japanese at the University of London. "Gerstle said the word [tsundoku] does not carry any stigma in Japan," the BBC reports.

Your unread books aren’t a source shame. They’re not even clutter as long as they’re in your home as a chosen totem of your love of books, a reminder of how much there is to learn, an homage to the art of writers, and a tool to make sure you’re never short of the next thing to read.

So Kondo away, book lovers. You don’t have to trash your beloved library. If it’s beloved then Kondo herself says all those books go straight in the keep pile.

Published on: Feb 21, 2019
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