It is currently very fashionable to think books are the best thing in the world. When Marie Kondo told people to get rid of books they don’t actually plan to read, or have already read and don’t plan on picking up again, the world was outraged.
I personally thought Marie Kondo’s advice was solid. She says:
Imagine what it would be like to have a bookshelf filled only with books that you really love. Isn’t that image spellbinding? For someone who loves books, what greater happiness could there be?
She goes on to talk about a company president who she was helping to sort through his office, and whose shelves were filled with “difficult-sounding titles that you might expect a company president to read”, such as various classics and latest bestsellers. When sorting, he decided to keep almost all of them, as he said he might want to read them sometime. Marie Kondo says: trust me, “sometime” never comes.
This was always something that stuck with me. I used to do this myself – keep books on my shelf that I thought “looked good”, including various classics, and which I “intended to read sometime”. I fully agree with Kondo’s analysis that ‘”sometime” never comes’. I also agree that books you haven’t read, or books you have and don’t plan on reading again, should be given away. But many, many people don’t agree with this.
It made me wonder why. Why this visceral reaction to books, and not to other items? It’s not like getting rid of a book means you can’t ever read it again. It’s not even like you can’t buy it again one day, if you really regret giving it up. Could there be something else at play?
The Guardian slammed Marie Kondo for saying we should only keep books that “spark joy”, stating that “Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us”. I think they are slightly misrepresenting her view. While it’s true that books should challenge our ideas, and that we should read on a variety of subjects by different people, I really don’t think that’s a particularly strong argument for why you should keep every single one of these books on your shelf at home. You’ve either read it, in which case you’ve already widened your horizons and experienced this art which has challenged you in some way, or you haven’t read it, in which case you probably won’t read it anytime in the near future, and there’s really no point in keeping it on your bookshelf.
There are also plenty of other forms of art which challenge and perturb us; films, music, plays, sculpture. But if we decide that we don’t want to fill our home with avant-garde depictions of penises, nobody raises an eyebrow. Why should books be any different?
Books are essentially paper – sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in them just being on your shelves.
– Marie Kondo
One problem comes in the format of the work. Because books are presented in their finished form, it can be easy to mistake owning a book for having any sort of interaction with it. But the act of reading is very different from the act of owning a book. Reading a book is to owning a book what admiring a painting is to keeping said painting locked up in a room no one visits, hidden by a dust cover. Looking at a book has zero to do with absorbing the text – you ultimately only get to interact with the contents while you’re reading it, or while you’re remembering the information within. As Kondo says, if it’s just sitting on a shelf gathering dust, what’s the point?
Hoarding books is no different to hoarding any other item. So why do we treat it differently? Why are books seen as these almost sacred artefacts that should be valued at all costs?
Of course, it makes sense historically. When books had to be laboriously printed by hand, they were incredibly valuable. First editions of various texts are extremely important to our understanding of human history, and should, of course, be preserved at all costs. But in today’s day and age, when printing is readily available, we cannot apply the same logic. “But if you throw books away it’s a waste of paper!”, some might say. Sure – but by that logic, we should stop printing books altogether, and everyone should simply purchase a Kindle and do all their reading on there. I’m pretty sure that suggestion would also garner a ton of objections from angry tweeters. “But I like the feeling of holding a real book in my hands”, they’ll complain.
I happen to feel this way too. I like holding a real book in my hands. I’ve already mentioned how stressful technology can be in my post on being constantly “switched on”. Ok, so I want to hold books in my hands, and I don’t want to be a hoarder, which means… I may need to get rid of books once in a while. The ones that didn’t speak to me, the ones I didn’t think were particularly good, the ones I don’t plan on reading again (even to pick up and check a quote), and the ones that have been sitting on my shelf for years which I’ve still never touched (like a constant “to do list” of “sometime” reading).
What I’m about to say may sound controversial, but hear me out.
I think the reason people are obsessed with their books is that they view them as trophies. The books they’ve already read are symbols of how cultured they are, and the books they haven’t yet read are symbols of how cultured they want to be; how cultured they could be, and will be, someday. Like buying clothes one size down to encourage yourself to lose weight.
I think this way of viewing the world is harmful. The idea that owning books makes you somehow smarter than not owning them is ludicrous. For one thing, the number of books you own doesn’t necessarily bear any correlation to the number of books you read. Additionally, not all books are created equal – if you own an entire library of trash, then you can hardly claim to be the epitome of sophistication. And what about articles, magazines, papers? Is someone who reads all three but hasn’t touched a book in their life somehow “less than”?
This idea that books are better than other forms of media is, to me, quite snobbish. Film and TV can do many things books cannot, and I’ve been just as moved by art I’ve seen through those mediums than through books. Sure, many film or TV adaptations lose something in translation, but that’s to be expected – when you take a piece of art and try to change the format, of course you’ll lose parts of the original. I’m sure if you tried to rewrite Tarantino’s films or Breaking Bad or Mad Men as books, there’d be something missing. In my opinion, books don’t tend to be better than film adaptations simply because they’re books – they tend to be better because they are the originals, and were created specifically for that format.
Books are ultimately just an art form, like so many others. It’s apples and oranges. I’ve been just as blown away by other forms of art – visual art (in particular I can recommend the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin), as well as the performing arts. Most performing arts cannot be “kept” in the way that books can – you go, you see, you remember. You can’t hoard. And yet, we’re ok with that. We are ok with the memory of a play, the memory of an opera, the memory of a ballet – yet with books we absolutely need to keep them, even if we never plan on re-reading them?
In my “Top Tips For Students” post, my very first tip is:
The biggest danger to doing well is THINKING you’ve studied enough. If you’re going to go to lectures and play angry birds the entire time, it’s better not to kid yourself that you’ve done anything productive and just stay home.
In my view, keeping lots of books on your bookshelf at home and not reading them serves the same purpose as going to all your lectures and playing Angry Birds (or some other cool, hip new game that isn’t as “2011”). What are you trying to prove?
Ultimately, the only person affected by this decision is you. The way I see it, what Marie Kondo is trying to do is to strip people of the guilt associated with books. The guilt that they should be holding on to certain books, or that they should be reading certain things. The guilt that they have no culture or no taste, or that they are stupid, if they haven’t yet read or don’t plan on reading that classic.
Don’t get me wrong – I am in no way saying we shouldn’t be reading, or encouraging people to read. I love reading. I find the act of slowing everything down and reading a book to be great for my mental health and wellbeing, if nothing else. I like the depth that comes with a book which seldom comes from a film. And I strongly prefer reading non-fiction to, for example, watching documentaries. But I don’t read to impress other people. I have absolutely zero interest in reading any of Jane Austen’s books, for example, and I’m 100% ok with that. I tried to get through the Lord of The Rings, and I have no shame in saying that I stopped shortly after they left the Shire. I like some classics – others I couldn’t get through. I like some modern bestsellers – others I think are hugely overrated.
So I fully support the notion that we should only keep our all-time favourites on our shelves. We should shed the guilt of trying to impress others with our class and our high levels of sophistication, and make our own books in our own home work for us. Let’s stop being proud of being snobs. Hoarding books doesn’t make you any any better than the next person. Hoarding books doesn’t make you any more intelligent, or more interesting, or more sophisticated. Books are great – but let’s stop thinking of them as trophies of achievement, and start thinking of them as hobbies to be enjoyed, by each individual in their own way.