Just like we infer the existence of a black hole by the behavior of matter around it, so I learned of the existence of Marie Kondo’s Netflix series based on a sudden flurry of posts on social media about how many books a person should own.
Apparently, Kondo’s Tidying Up includes scenes of tidying up books. Books. Her advice, I am told, is to jettison all books you haven’t read from your home, as well as those that do not “spark joy.” (That’s the word used on the show, anyway, and in English translations of her work, though I’ve learned the original Japanese is closer to “palpitations.”)
I’ve seen a lot of critiques, often from people who are happy to follow the Konmari method when it comes to their wardrobe or appliances. I’ve also seen some spirited defenses, by people who point out that Kondo isn’t making a hard-and-fast rule (she thinks 30 books is the perfect number for her, but that’s not meant to imply anything about people who have 600, they say)—and that, after all, libraries exist.
I could respond to this from a lot of angles: the fact that I teach my students annotating practices—yes, write in your books, people; the fact that you can reread a book and find something totally different in it; the fact that anyone who reads regularly, even for recreation, would get tired of only thirty books; the fact that bookshelves exist to keep more than thirty books in a tidy and aesthetically satisfying manner; I could go on.
But to anyone who actually likes books, those reasons are obvious. What may be less obvious is the problematic nature of selecting books, valuing books, solely based on “joy” or any kind of positive tingle.
Yesterday, I finally finished a book that had been on my “to be read” pile a long time: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Ever since this Black Lives Matter-inspired young adult novel was published in 2017, I felt I should read it. The reviews were excellent. People found it challenging, important, powerful. I put it off, simply, because I knew it would be hard to read. And it was. It was also excellent: not merely a “worthy” book, but a good one.
Make no mistake, though—this is a book about trauma and howling injustice. If I touched the cover of The Hate U Give and felt a tingle of joy, I’d be a terrible person.
By all means, give away books. Give away that book with the ending so stupid that you threw it against the wall. Give away that book with the great cover that turned out painfully banal. Give away your outdated how-to-guides and the cookbooks you haven’t looked at in years because… the Internet. But keep the books that make you think, that expand your imagination, that give a work out to your compassion muscles.
Yes, keep the books you want to hug like an old friend, too. But you’re not wasting house space by giving some of it to a book you didn’t really like but want to try again when you’re older, and a book that you still haven’t got up the courage to read, because you know you ought to and someday, darn it, you will.
Kondo might agree with me on this, though that’s not how her words are being taken. But I’ll go further. I’ll even say it’s a good idea to seek out books you aren’t excited to read, and something that I, personally, ought to do more of.
It’s easy to slip into a niche, with reading as with anything else. It took the peer pressure of a book club (one I started for this reason) to get me to read The Hate U Give, and other worthwhile but tough reads like Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves or Ibi Zoboi’s American Street. It took grad school courses to get me to read books like George Eliot’s Adam Bede or Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. In case you can’t tell, I tend to gravitate toward comedies. None of these books really zings my joy receptors, but they’re all darn good.
I’m not just saying “we should keep our hard, grim books,” either. Some people loooove their hard, grim books. We all need to get out of our reading comfort zones sometimes, whatever that zone may be. The joy spark is personal, and so is what you side-eye and leave on the shelf.
The best thing I’ve seen referenced by the Great Konmari Book Debate is this article, describing the work of Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He argues that one’s personal library “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there”; that your unread books should “look at you menacingly.” They serve a crucial purpose: to humble us.
If that sounds unpleasant, keep this is mind: I’m no humility expert, but I do happen to live with one, from whom I’ve learned that intellectual humility isn’t thinking less of your ideas than their true value. It’s the healthy ability to recognize the limitations of your own knowledge. Does it hurt to have a visible reminder? Can’t it even be exciting?
Intellectual humility, for me, isn’t just recognizing all the academic and practical fields of knowledge I’m no expert in. It’s being a Tolkien fan who still hasn’t, um, actually read The Silmarillion. (It sits there, stink-eyeing me.) And it’s being a Victorian literature professor who (am I really going to reveal this in public? guess so!) has only read the comic book version of Wuthering Heights.
The novel’s on my shelf, though. I’m going to read it. Someday.
 Already, by the time of writing, social media has moved on.