I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying when it came out in English, because I’m a book reviewer and, as the article you’re reading proves, you never know what you’ll end up writing about in my line of work. But I didn’t realise it was such a big deal to people that she suggests you throw your books out. I know they say those who burn books will burn people, but I’ve met a lot of bookshelves that could do with some light singeing, and these have included my own.
I had over two thousand books at one point in my life, which if you’ve grown up in a Bombay flat and lived on a journalist’s salary, is sincerely nuts. But that was #10YearChallenge me. Now I give away books in a hurry. I lend almost indiscriminately; I think twice before I buy any as gifts; sometimes I throw them out with the old newspapers. If you’re looking for a push to re-organise your own shelves, or just want someone to pick a fight with, here’s how I keep my own bookshelf as lean as possible.
Organise for work: I’ll never have a house with “thirty volumes” in it, as Kondo prefers. In The Life-Changing Magic, she suggested few people would really re-read more than a hundred, unless they were “in specific professions, such as scholars and authors.” As a writer and editor, this would have been my ironclad excuse.
But to be honest, most books are awful, even when they’re useful. I keep every new book that I buy or get sent on my desk, next to my laptop, in a tall pile. If it’s a book I love or one written by a friend, I keep it. If I haven’t read it in the first 45-60 days, I take it off the pile and send it to a closet. Every six months, I give away the contents of the closet to a library or to my newsagent.
This isn’t foolproof. Just last week I tore my hair out looking for a book that I gave away that I needed to consult. But contrary to what you might imagine, this is a rare occurrence in my working life. It hurts to occasionally re-purchase a book, sure, but have you seen how much a cup of coffee costs these days? It’s not the dumbest financial mistake I’ve made.
Organise for space: It turns out that tiny Bombay flats are my favourite places to live. Surprise. Kondo’s Japanese instinct for treating spaces and objects as sentient, or at least energised, may not seem quite in line with good old Enlightenment values, but you don’t have to be David Hume to know that the fewer things you focus on, the better that focus is. Space in my house feels like space in my brain.
My desk, which is also a bookshelf, has three kinds of books other than the TBR pile on it. There’s poetry, which is literature’s way of making space in the brain. There’s a pile of sports books I dust off for a weekly column I write. And there are heavy books that act as bookends to these things. I put everything else is placed in storage, rather than for display or within easy reach. Working to retrieve a book can be quite good for neck and shoulder muscles.
Organise to move: My personal limit for moving is three boxes of books (with some squared away in the kitchen boxes, admittedly, from which they emerge smelling like pepper and stainless steel). Having moved a number of times in the last few years, I’ve given away large piles of books to friends and to local libraries. I know it sounds cheesy, but there are some books in our lives that will do better with other people.
I don’t thank them (pace Kondo), but I’ve hugged and kissed them and sent them on their way. I never thought about it before, but perhaps that’s why she says you should treat your books as animate; thinking of them as their own entities, instead of your possessions, makes it easier to let them go.
Organise for the apocalypse: I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what book I will grab if I am leaving a burning building. I have answers classified by genre, historical period, desert island reading, availability, attractiveness and by individual author. This may not seem normal, but I offer it as an alternative to Kondo’s controversial suggestion to choose only books that “spark joy” for you. How about books that just feel necessary?
A lot of stuff feels like security to many of us. But practicing emotional detachment towards them is also a way to avoid a false sense of their necessity to life. A few years ago I’d have told you which Jane Austen novel I’d rescue (Persuasion) from a fire before you finished the question. But the truth is, if my life collapsed in a fire, Persuasion is probably not the novel I’d save. It’s the one I’d remember most fondly. If we are on a desert island with no books in our future, Anne Elliott and her beastly family will live in me.
Lighten up: There are hundreds of books asleep on some shelf or strung up in some rag-and-bone shop that made me, or changed me. My mother’s undergraduate poetry books that fell to tatters as I read it; the musty, tightly-bound copy of The Makioka Sisters in my college library; the Malayalam books from which my granny recited stories of gods and goddesses; or the abridged Russian classics sold at VT Station bookshops, whose stories my grandfather told me from memory long after he had discarded them. The most important books in my life often haven’t been mine to keep.
I didn’t love The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying, and deleted it from my Kindle. It’s not written for women like me (“Wear something feminine or elegant as nightwear. The worst thing you can do is to wear a sloppy sweat suit”). It’s also written for women, in a very particular way. It reinscribes their invisible and uncompensated household labour without ever suggesting that untidiness might have social or structural causes, and that women can’t resolve it alone. It was very enjoyable to watch her Netflix show eating soupy noodles against a pile of unfolded laundry.
But I agree with her about how we treat books, because she sees them as objects, which is ultimately all that they are. That’s why bookshelves aren’t just storage furniture, but display furniture. There’s a particularly telling way in which people like us -- or at least people like me -- perform their ownership of bookshelves. And books may be bought and sold for display, but they are written in trust for humanity. It’s best to read them, and keep them, with that in mind.
Supriya Nair is a writer and editor from Bombay.
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