The Shelf Space Quandary: Stocked or Scarce — Leah Henrickson

‘My mission is to spark joy in the world through tidying’, Marie Kondo explains. ‘Choose items that spark joy for you.’ The new Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has dominated recent household conversations. The show follows from the 2014 English-language release of Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, which promptly achieved the status of international bestseller following its debut. In her book and show, Kondo advocates her ‘KonMari method’: keep only those items that ‘spark joy’. According to Kondo, items that do not spark joy should be thanked for their service and removed, donated to others or to the always-welcoming trash can.

The KonMari method is, ultimately, a meditative practice tending towards minimalism, encouraging participants to reflect upon their own consumer habits and to mindfully remove subtle sources of stress. A closet heaving with clothing that no longer fits, for example, does not leave one filled with joy when opened. If anything, the unnecessary attire just serves as a reminder of a past two-inches-slimmer, doing little to fulfil the daily needs of the present. As the back cover of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up promises, the KonMari method ‘will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home — and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.’

Of course, some areas of the home are easier to tidy than others. Expired tuna in the larder? Food poisoning does not spark joy — chuck it in the bin. And that two-sizes-too-big jumper you received from an ex-partner six years ago? You forgot it was even there — it’ll almost certainly be of more use to a charity shop. What about that old edition of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff that you borrowed from your mother and never got around to returning? Woah. Stop right there.

Promptly after Tidying Up’s Netflix release, Twitter was awash with book lovers criticising the KonMari method as applied to bookshelves. ‘I just don’t trust someone who doesn’t understand the magic of books,’ one tweet read.

Promptly after Tidying Up’s Netflix release, Twitter was awash with book lovers criticising the KonMari method as applied to bookshelves. ‘I just don’t trust someone who doesn’t understand the magic of books,’ one tweet read. ‘Books come to us when they are supposed to and we read them when we are meant to. They are not interchangeable, indistinguishable blocks of text.’ ‘So sad to learn that Marie Kondo is breaking into people’s houses and throwing out all their books (I assume this is what is happening based on some reactions on twitter)’, another more humorous tweet read.  Additionally, articles appeared in high-profile news sites touting the value of full bookshelves. ‘What we gain from keeping books — and why it doesn’t need to be “joy”’ one Guardian article was titled. Another Independent article argued for ‘Why Marie Kondo needs to remember that our books tell us who we are’.

In her Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, Kondo acknowledges the difficulties some face as they attempt to apply the KonMari method to their bookshelves in particular. But, Kondo explains:

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 their just being on your shelves. You read books for the experience of reading. Books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember (p. 105).

Books are essentially paper — sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together.

In Kondo’s view, books are means to communicational ends. While they may contain revolutionary ideas, touching stories, or insights into alternative nonfictional or fictional worlds, they are hardly different from that two-sizes-too-big jumper taking up space in your closet. They are not talismans, but things: things that occupy valuable real estate on the shelf. Kondo herself claims to keep her book collection to around 30 volumes at any one time.

Criticisms of Kondo’s method of clearing bookshelves are diverse. Some emphasise how the books one owns reflect one’s own personality, one’s own thoughts and values. Others observe that this is not always the case — one may own a copy of The Communist Manifesto without identifying as communist — and that the books we own instead reflect our openness to others’ stories. Books may act as room furnishings that reveal to our guests what kinds of people we are. Some texts may not spark joy, but may nevertheless be valuable in a canonical sense: Gulliver’s Travels is boring, but its place on my bookshelf signifies that I appreciate its cultural significance. I own it not because I enjoy reading it, but because of what it symbolises as a physical artefact.

A commonality shared by all of these criticisms is a fundamental fetishisation of printed books, a relatively new tendency towards hoarding books for reasons little more nuanced than their simply being books. While books have long been objects of admiration — think, for example, of the manuscript Bible placed at the front of the medieval church, representing the Word of God even to those too illiterate to read it for themselves — never has it been so easy for ordinary people to accumulate and revere physical texts. Even if books are priced affordably, a book collection connotes proof of culture, as well as proof of being able to pay for the topmost tiers of that culture. Books offer exclusive access into supposedly higher levels of sophistication, speaking to civility and social acumen that bolster one’s own sense of cultural capital. The steady success of the rare book trade in particular indicates an especial reverence towards less common editions, with the annual London Rare Book Fair (for just one example of many such fairs) resulting in millions of pounds’ worth of book sales in just three days each year.

Books offer exclusive access into supposedly higher levels of sophistication, speaking to civility and social acumen that bolster one’s own sense of cultural capital.

Moreover, books may be displayed throughout the home, supposedly reflecting one’s personal identity and cultural capital via décor. One article listing ‘21 Chic Ways to Decorate Your Apartment With Books’ suggests, for example, using books as a headboard, plant pots, picture frames, and — as though in some sort of backwards world — as shelves. To the book lover’s horror, many of this article’s suggestions require mutilation of the objects so that they may be repurposed. Books are, in such cases, not appreciated for their texts but for their appearance, not for their functionality but for their aesthetic.

For those who use books as decoration, the full bookshelf is, perhaps, of greater importance than any one book in particular. A single book says little; a collection speaks volumes. In his 1999 The Book on the Bookshelf, Henry Petroski (who has also written cultural histories of seemingly mundane technologies as the pencil and the toothpick) investigates the historical ways in which collections of books have been stored. Petroski further notes numerous historical contexts wherein books were less visible. In some cases, they were packed into chests, hidden from public view to preserve them as artefacts and to safeguard them from theft. In other cases, they were chained to shelves, relegated to protected rooms with exclusive access. There have, though, also been historical contexts wherein books have been visible. Some medieval libraries had their books chained to desks, but exposed to willing patrons. The famous ‘Ezra miniature’ from the 700 CE Codex Amiatinus, as one example, shows an eighth-century scribe in front of a bookshelf with books lying flat on each of the shelves. Despite there being fewer than a dozen books, they fill the shelves, giving the viewer the impression that Ezra is not only a scribe but a well-read scribe, an intelligent man of sufficient financial means to afford such luxuries. It is worth noting as well that the books in this image are still stored in a closable cabinet. Close those doors when you’re done, please — these are expensive to replace.

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The ‘Ezra miniature’, from the Codex Amiatinus, Wearmouth-Jarrow, c, 716. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1

In a later manuscript from 1479 (Royal 18 E III), two decades after the emergence of the printing press, translator Simon de Hesdin is depicted similarly to Ezra, hard at work at his desk. Books fill two of the room’s shelves, one of which has a protective door. The presence of books in this illustration contributes to the viewer’s understanding of de Hesdin’s intellect and translational competence. We do not know what these books are, but the mere connotations of books are enough to justify their presence in the image. Subtly, they sway the viewer towards seeing Simon de Hesdin as a man of financial and educational means, as a man serious about his theological study. It would be anachronistic to criticise Ezra and de Hesdin’s collections for not being as ample as they could be; books are much more accessible objects now than during the times these images depict. What is clear, though, is that the venerable connotations of books are hardly limited to the modern day. Books as physical objects, as sacred tenants of scarce shelf space, have long contributed to understandings of their owners as worldly and urbane.

Royal 18 E.III, f.24
Miniature of the translator, Simon de Hesdin, at work in his study. Netherlands, S. (Bruges) 

Indeed, the codex form (the physical book) has long been regarded as more than just a container for text. Texts communicate knowledge and stories, certainly, but one’s merely owning books contributes to the perception of that person as knowledgeable, worldly. Recall the multitude of online articles comprising photos of famous authors’ home libraries, and the sense of admiration one instinctively feels towards these authors upon seeing such photos. It matters little whether one has actually read those books, or whether one even intends to. What matters is that they are there. And, as we all know, we all become better people by simply being within books’ presence, by absorbing their contents through osmosis. ‘The tangible reality of books defines us, just as the handwritten scrolls of the Middle Ages defined the monks who concealed them from barbarians,’ Joe Queenan writes in his 2012 One for the Books. ‘We believe that the objects themselves have magical powers.’

Marxist theory refers to this attitude as commodity fetishism: ‘[t]he mistaken view that the value of a commodity is intrinsic and the corresponding failure to appreciate the investment of labour that went into its production.’ That is, some objects are perceived as inherently more valuable than others, as embedded with cultural value that is to be dissected and embraced by their owners. A book is considered a more respectable object than a DVD; a copy of Waiting for Godot may be valued above a copy of Twilight. It is partly because of our commodity fetishism of books that book burning is seen as such a barbaric crime. Burning a book is a symbolic act of destroying a symbolic artefact. Less dramatically, simply throwing a book away is regarded by some as a kind of sacrilege, a moral crime. Both acts, though, may be more appropriately interpreted as a reluctance to compromise the cultural capital connotated by books.

What is more, the commodity fetishism of books speaks to more implicit realities of financial privilege. Books are heavy, take up a lot of space, and can be pretty damn pricey. The ability to store books in one’s home depends upon there being enough space for shelving — or, in more informal circumstances, piles on the floors — as well as there being a sense of location permanency. Ever tried moving with hundreds of books? It ain’t fun, folks. Substantial book collections are for people with disposable incomes, with space to spare, living in a fixed place.

What is more, the commodity fetishism of books speaks to more implicit realities of financial privilege.

At the same time, Kondo’s cult of ‘tidy’ — characterised by ritualistic practices of decluttering and a more general penchant for minimalism — too demonstrates a kind of cultural privilege. The ability to buy items reflects one’s financial stature, certainly, but so does the ability to willingly part with those items. A reluctance to dispose of material goods may stem from an unwillingness to buy those goods again in the future: why throw this out when I may need it later? In other cases, material goods may be embedded with sentimental value that supposedly contributes to a more positive disposition: books make me happy, and I want to surround myself with things that make me happy. Further, minimalism not only encompasses financial privilege, but also necessitates substantial dedication of time. Assessing all of one’s possessions and mindfully keeping or discarding requires one to have the personal time to do so. For those working long hours, or those with children or other caring responsibilities, this time is perhaps less easily come by. Yet even with the financial and time reserves that permit minimalist practices, some Kondo evangelists still find themselves unable to part with their tomes, opting instead for selective minimalism wherein closets are weeded and kitchens are neatened, but the bookshelves stay stocked. Books are good, after all, and one can never have too much of a good thing.

Marie Kondo may be out there at this very moment  weeding someone’s bookshelf for the next season of her Netflix show. Rid yourself of those unread books, Kondo advises, because they are simply things. And those books you have already read? ‘Books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember,’ Kondo writes. Books are not magical, and owning a copy of Waiting for Godot does not make you any more worldly than if you were to own a copy of Twilight, or a DVD of Twilight’s film adaptation. But whether or not you apply the KonMari method to your own bookshelves, the number of books you own is not so much a reflection of your intellect or cultured demeanour as a reflection of your privilege. Both the cult of the book as a sacred object and the cult of minimalism speak to the extent of the financial and time resources at one’s disposal. It matters little whether one owns a collection of 300 codices or has whittled that collection down to just 30 — the book lover engages with books as fetishised commodities. Book lovers all, of course, love books; what differs is how that love is expressed. As we stand in front of our bookshelves, admiring their contents or with a KonMari-trained eye, we are compelled to consider our relationships with our books: what they mean to us as textual and physical objects, what the implications of their presence may be, and what they reveal about who we are.


Leah Henrickson is a doctoral student at Loughborough University, researching the social and literary implications of natural language generation and computer-generated texts. Follow her on Twitter.

Featured image: Books monochrome, Vincent Aguerre, Creative Commons.