A lot of people seem to be convinced that a Japanese tidying expert wants them to get rid of all their books. Thanks to her new Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, organizational guru Kondo and her “spark joy” philosophy are back in the news. I can promise you, though, that she is not saying to throw out all your books and never read again. In fact, I think Marie Kondo’s book tidying advice is just what many book lovers need to hear.
If you’ve read Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you’re already familiar with the basic premise of her system. She sorts belongings into categories, piles all items in a category together, and picks up each one, waiting for it to spark joy. If it does spark joy, it stays. If not, it goes.
It’s a very simple way to declutter. There are other basic tenets of the KonMari system, like using small boxes in drawers to keep like things together, and her much-celebrated folding technique (which is pretty great!), but the whole thing revolves around the idea that the things in your home should spark joy in you. In the Netflix show, this system helps participants get rid of things like never-worn clothes, boxes and boxes of baseball cards, children’s toys, extra mugs, and yes, books.
Kondo asks us to think about the purpose of each object in our home and the feeling it inspires in us. Apparently, some people are unaware that books are also objects. They’re objects that we love and cherish, objects that are also gateways to dozens of new worlds and experiences, but that doesn’t mean they don’t collect in piles or take up a lot of space in a small home.
Kondo’s method is not about getting rid of an entire category of belongings just like that. Instead, it’s about helping people keep what they really love in order to make their homes organized and their lives manageable. I’m a book lover. I work in publishing, I’m a former bookseller, and I write for Book Riot. Before I Kondo’d my books a few years ago, I also had DOZENS of books I had never read and probably would never read. Books given to me by exes. Books leftover from grad school. Books I’d read once and hadn’t particularly liked. Books I’d read once and had liked, but didn’t feel the need to read again. I didn’t feel joy when I looked at or touched those books. Sometimes I felt sad or wistful, but most often I just felt stressed and overwhelmed at how many there were. That was a far cry from how I felt when I held a Jane Austen novel or I Capture the Castle. I also lived in a small apartment, and books were everywhere, piled on most surfaces.
Kondo suggests getting rid of unread books because if you haven’t read it by now, you probably won’t. I don’t agree with that advice, but here’s the thing about someone’s suggestions: you can take or leave them. Kondo is not actually in your house forcing you to set a pile of beloved books on fire. I did keep some of my unread books, but following her system, I donated or sold a few dozen others and have more space on my shelves for the books that actually do spark joy.
I’m not down to ten books or anything—I still have many books and I always will, because I love them. However, now I feel better when I look at my shelves and see mostly books I’ve read and loved and want to cherish, and not a huge stack of books I know I’ll never get to.
Kondo herself doesn’t seem to be a big book lover, and that’s fine. In the Netflix show, she allows people to decide what sparks joy based on their own hobbies and interests. She’s not forcing anyone to become her. She’s also very good at adapting her advice (as in the episode with a widowed woman who wants to go through her late husband’s belongings first, not last) or asking gently probing questions to help people determine if something really does spark joy (as in the episode with the two writers, where the book tidying issue comes up).
Kondo is the gentlest possible tidying expert I’ve ever seen on TV. I don’t know how people are getting the idea that she’s on a one-woman mission to empty their shelves. The basic premise of something sparking joy is that you love it and it makes you feel good. If all your books spark joy in you, she’s hardly going to say, “Burn them all!”
I think more book lovers need to think about whether all of their books actually do spark joy. Some people seem to have totally misunderstood the KonMari system, at least when it comes to books. A book doesn’t need to be joyful itself in order to spark joy in you. I cherish my Dickens novels, full of disease and poverty and suffering, because I love them. Other books about difficult topics are still on my shelves. Whether or not a book sparks joy is often totally separate from its subject matter. It might spark joy because it’s well-written, about a fascinating new-to-you topic, a rare edition, by a friend, or makes you think fondly of a particular time in your life. The point is that you know it when you feel it, which is why Kondo suggests starting with a book you know will spark joy, so you remember how that feels.
But your old driver’s ed manual? A high school copy of an overrated novel with half the cover missing? That novel your ex gave you that you didn’t want to read them and definitely don’t now? It’s okay to let these things go. You’re making more space on your shelf for books you truly want.
P.S. Not all book lovers have to have the same feelings about Marie Kondo’s book tidying advice, or about anything! Even at Book Riot, sometimes we disagree.