My husband’s quest for a minimalist home is futile. He longs for clean lines, mostly empty white shelves, while I feel panicked and see the house as soulless if those shelves are bare of my books. While I do continually purge my collection, the liberated spaces are quickly filled by new acquisitions.
Having watched a few episodes of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” on Netflix together didn’t help matters. “See? You just hold the book in your hand and see if it sparks joy or not!” While I can see that working with socks or spatulas, my relationship with books is much more involved and complicated for disposal to be reduced to such simplicity.
Can the range of emotions sparked be whittled down simply to “joy” or not? Jane Eyre? Love in the Time of Cholera? Joy, yes, joy! But also loss and love and betrayal and heartbreak. The Handmaid’s Tale? No, definitely not joy. But thought provoking, cautionary, timely. The Orenda? Some joy, but mainly respect, awe, sadness. 201 French Verbs? Not joy per se, but helpful.
Quoted in a recent Toronto Star article, editorial director Amanda Lewis says, “Books don’t always ‘spark joy’ for me, and nor should they. They spark outrage, contentment, uneasiness, so I keep a variety of books in my home that inspire a range of emotional and intellectual responses.” Yes, I agree that is the purpose of books.
Some books also have sentimental value, such as those written by friends or received as gifts for special occasions, such as graduations. And don’t get me started on my infatuation with and reverence for my Oxford Dictionary or Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary, with their tissue-like pages …
Then there are the books that sit on my shelf but have not yet been read. Does that mean that they do not “spark joy” or are not useful? When my father passed away, I took into my life many books from his vast library, mainly those on literature, Italian art, and history. Some of those books have sat on my shelf for 20 years. And yet, finally one day, I found my daughter engrossed in The Adventure of Archaeology. It filled my heart and filled her mind – and all because the book happened to be sitting next to her on the shelf at the right time. As a budding artist, she is now able to tuck into my father’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which I myself had never used. When the kids had to do a project on mythology, I was able to pluck Dad’s Gods and Mortals in Classical Mythology off the shelf and place it in their hands.
Access to a wide-ranging home library allows children to explore at will and spark imagination. In fact, studies have shown that “having 80 or more books in a home results in adults with significantly higher levels of literacy, numeracy, and information communication technology (ICT) skills.” In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo admits to limiting her book collection to 30 at any one time.
In her online article for Inc., writer Jessica Stillman points to unread books as a source to keep you “intellectually hungry and perpetually curious.” She references Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote in The Black Swan:
A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The 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. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
Kevin Mims, in his 2018 New York Times article, takes Taleb’s term “antilibrary” to task, preferring the Japanese term tsundoku, meaning acquiring books for later reading (lit. “piling up”). Mims opines: “A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. … The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”
I think that’s the clincher: perusing my bookshelves tells me and others something about my mind and my interests, where I’ve been, where I’m going – a sort of roadmap of my life – and gives me the chance to share that with others in a tangible way. My books hold memories and emotions, which can be relived on call. My unread books represent potential for more learning, for letting imagination soar once again, and the promise of another day of experiencing something new within the pages in the near future.
So maybe the varied range of negative and positive emotions experienced when holding a book does, in fact, equal a type of joy in the end, and that is what Marie Kondo is getting at? I think I'll stick with tsundoku.
What do you think your personal library says about you? Do you agree with Taleb’s notion of the antilibrary? Or do you prefer the KonMari method of purging books?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.