Zachary Pothier

Court & Spark

March 6, 2019

Marie Kondo, Japan’s tidying wizard, recently found herself assailed by the mob for a rather curious reason; that is, not in reaction to any political controversy.

For the happy few without an internet connection who have –somehow— stumbled onto this piece, word quickly spread that Kondo had set the book world aflame by claiming we should own just thirty books. Her method demanded we hold each tome in our hands to see if it “sparks joy” and, if it doesn’t, consigned to the flames. For certain bibliophiles, this was the worst crime committed by the Japanese since Pearl Harbor (and even then, they only bombed a naval base).

While it is easy to object to Kondo’s precept, the book people cannot let it go. Panicked cries spewed forth from Twitter, invectives were written, bomb shelters built, and entire collections were scuttled to keep Kondo’s little paws off them.

At CNET, Bonnie Burton argued Kondo does not understand the comfort books provide her with, reminding her “the world is full of creativity, mystery, and love. Books help me escape from the rigors of the real world.” [1] Ron Charles of The Washington Post laments that it “would take [him] years” to apply the joy test to his thousands of books, wrapping up his essay with words as menacing as they are saccharine: “Take your tidy, magic hands off my piles, if you please. That great jumble of fond memories, intellectual challenges, and future delights doesn’t just spark, it warms the whole house.” [2] In impeccably fashionable parlance, Anakana Schofield writes in The Guardian that the notion of applying a joy test to books is “deeply problematic.” “Literature,” she says, “does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.” [3]

But as is often the case with such controversies, Kondo was misunderstood. In an interview with IndieWire, she clarified her thirty-book rule is a personal one. “If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you how passionate you are about books, what’s clearly so important in your life.” [4]

Had any of these “readers” actually consulted Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing –which first appeared in English almost five years ago— they would have found only this reference to the thirty book rule: “I now keep my collection of books to about thirty volumes at any one time, but in the past, I found it very hard to discard books because I love them.” [5] In other words, while bibliophiles need not worry about Kondo, other matters of concern shine through: foremost among them, that what ties her critics’ articles together is the pretext for them to parade how many books they have.

Burton, for starters, says the first thing anyone who visits her apartment “will see is the wall of floor-to-ceiling bookcases in my living room. There are two more bookcases in my kitchen, three in my hallway and another wall of bookcases in my bedroom.” All of this adds up to twenty bookcases “jam-packed with books, comics, and geeky collectibles.” [6] Charles drags the reader through a tedious history of his “piles” that culminates with an account of his “two simultaneous disasters”: a flood and an appointment to the Pulitzer committee that resulted in “streams of books [that] converged into rivers that emptied into oceans of literature.” [7] Schofield, whose viral tweet [8] helped spawn this sorry affair, is somewhat more restrained, simply assuring us she reads “in a variety of ways – ebooks, audiobooks,” [9] and that she’s not afraid to share or donate her books. She ends her essay by saying it should be “obligatory that all living spaces come with built-in bookshelves.” [10] (But Marie Kondo, we are told, is the one trying to push people around).

Reading is an inherently solitary activity insofar as nobody can really know we do it unless we make a big to-do about it. Our bookshelves let us show off our collection to visitors whom we can dazzle with our handsome incunabulae, impenetrable novels and slick treatises on communism; but unless one regularly leads tour groups through their home, such opportunities are rare.

In an age where virtually everything is photographed and nothing remembered, literature has become, as Auberon Waugh put it, a “minority interest.” [11] Books, on the other hand, have made the transition from things to be read to things to be looked at.

Those dismissing Kondo think they get some sort of benefit from surrounding themselves with books, chief among which seems to be anxiety relief. Piles of books give them the comfort that escape may be within arm’s reach and, to an extent, one cannot fault them. In the dispiriting iniquity of our age, it is reasonable to want to retreat into one’s library to stew on the grand questions.

The trouble is that very little reading, never mind stewing, is taking place. The weary justifications of the anti-Kondoites are but a smokescreen, an attempt to have it both ways and to say, urbi et orbi, they can tune them out at any time –but first, please look at all the #books we’ve got. The false dilemma surrounding Kondo’s thirty book “rule” is a convenient excuse for social posturing, and these “readers” seem to have contrived tortuous theories to show their love of books is not based on the abject pleasures of the hedonistic Kondoites. They’re like corporations with incomprehensible “mission statements” trying to polish the turd they’re in the business of selling smallpox blankets to orphans.

Instead of building libraries, what these people have set up are art instillations. Every picture that they share on social media is a preview of new attractions –and all we ever get to see are previews. This is, of course, by design. If we were ever to visit their homes, the books would be there, looking more or less the same as they do in the pictures online. The reality of the books is not in question, but to see them in person is missing the point. Our role is to observe at a Brechtian remove, preferably through the medium of a screen.

This public relationship with books is in stark contrast to the one presented in Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.” He is an anti-Kondo of sorts, who delights in the disorder of books “not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order.” [12] His relationship with them is “a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional [or] utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness.” [13] Both Kondo and her detractors agree that books must serve some sort of useful function. For Kondo, it is about having the joy of easy access to the “kind of information [that] is important to you at this moment.” Her opposition claims that books are useful as a source of comfort and anxiety relief.

For Benjamin, however, being what we’d now call a book “hoarder” [14] means to have a private relationship with one’s books. When a collector holds a book in his hands, “he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired,” and his ultimate aim is to “renew the old world” through the acquisition of old books. [15] [16] The relationship ends when the collector dies or otherwise loses possession of his books. As Benjamin puts it, “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.” [17] By that same token, the private relationship begins anew when another collector comes along and takes care of the widowed books (and here, one cannot help but think of Georges Bataille hiding the manuscript to Benjamin’s Passagenwerk in the Bibliothèque Nationale).

The monogamous relationship Benjamin describes is no more. [18] The connection between a book and its owner is now littered with interlopers. If we were to map out the journey a book takes from an author’s mind to the reader’s hand, we’d find the last decade or so has introduced an innumerable amount of steps between the purchase of the book and its reading.

And it is in this sometimes long interval between acquisition and actualization that the art exhibit is laid out. Once the book is bought, a photograph of it is shared almost immediately. It is broadcast around the world, infiltrating the data streams of people who may have no interest in seeing it. We are invited to gape at the coming attraction, pondering the book’s aesthetic beauty and, what is yet more important, lingering on its potential: to be read, to summon feelings of whatever sort, to provide someone with “escape,” to educate, or to do any of the things one can expect of it.

In any decent horror movie, we will rarely get a good look at the fiend, the shape of which is only hinted at or flashed onscreen for nanoseconds. The viewer’s fear and intrigue depends on making him fill in the blanks and wonder: “What could this thing look like?” A similar phenomenon is at work with all this book photography. We rarely see the book being read; though reading is insinuated, if not tacitly assumed. (It is a book, after all.) But as with the monsters, we are left to speculate. And this is why the exhibit never opens, why it never goes beyond the preview.

In A Short History of Decay, Cioran writes that “the compulsion to preach is so rooted in us that it emerges from depths unknown to the instinct for self-preservation. Each of us awaits his moment in order to propose something—anything.” [19] For some, that “anything” is books. There is nothing wrong, of course, with having a passion and sharing it with others, but there is a fine line between shared enjoyment and fanatical pursuit.

When this passion is backed with nothing but images, what we engage in is a love for sharing, more than books. As Cioran suggests, it is preaching for its own sake, and while the decision to preach about books may seem as arbitrary as any other matter of taste, the attacks on Kondo [20] show that people value their glamour over much else. It comes down, as I’ve said, to social posturing, to assuring one’s audience they have struck the balance between sense and sensibility through you.

This “audience” is itself an abstraction, a loose collection of avatars with a vague appreciation for books. Algorithms more or less ensure that one’s posts do not reach anyone in particular. Not that it matters much: the image speaks to no one in particular. “Likes,” “views,” and all the rest are nice endorphin boosts, but they are subsidiary. Just as the audience never sees the book, the preacher never meets his audience. The image does, however, nourish an abstraction and the abstraction, in turn, feeds the preacher. There is at work here a strange, flickering feedback between the public and the privy (understood as the initiatory).

The problem with books has less to do with the space they occupy than with the mental space they consume. The book has become an artifact, an affect to be captured with a photograph and digitally disseminated. Somewhere in Hell, Gutenberg is probably kicking himself for bothering to invent the moveable type now that reading is, again, moving towards a kind of esoteric practice.

The solution may be as simple as reading a book. But if the Kondo affair has taught us anything, it’s that is something most would rather not to do. It just doesn’t spark joy.

 


[1] Burton, Bonnie. Marie Kondo, Back Off! Why This Book Hoarder Refuses to Tidy Up. 11 January. Accessed 27 January, 2019. https://www.cnet.com/news/marie-kondo-back-off-why-this-book-hoarder-refuses-to-tidy-up/
[2] Charles, Ron. Keep Your Tidy, Spark-Joy Hands Off My Book Piles, Marie Kondo. 10 January. Accessed 27 January, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/keep-your-tidy-spark-joy-hands-off-my-book-piles-marie-kondo/2019/01/10/28dd7a8c-14ee-11e9-b6ad-9cfd62dbb0a8_story.html?utm_term=.1a71b7482544.
[3] Schofield, Anakana. What We Gain From Keeping Books – And Why It Doesn’t Need to Be ‘Joy’. 7 January. Accessed 27 January, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/07/what-we-gain-from-keeping-books-and-why-it-doesnt-need-to-be-joy-marie-kondo?CMP=twt_books_b-gdnbooks.
[4] Nguyen, Hanh. Marie Kondo to Bibliophiles: No, You Don’t Need to Throw Away Your Books. 16 January. Accessed 27 January, 2019.
[5] Kondo, Marie. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. New York: Ten Speed Press, p. 93.
[6] Burton, ibidem.
[7] Charles, ibidem.
[8] Schofield, Anakana. Twitter Post. 3 January, https://twitter.com/AnakanaSchofiel/status/1080957281636835328?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
[9] Schofield does not reveal how she “reads” an audiobook.
[10] Schofield, ibidem.
[11] Waugh, Auberon. Kiss Me, Chudleigh: The World According to Auberon Waugh. Edited by Peter Cook. London: Coronet, p. 250.
[12] Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schoken Books, p. 59.
[13] Ibid., p. 60.
[14] Benjamin prefers the cheerier term “collector.”
[15] Ibid., p. 61.
[16] Benjamin does not provide a definition for what he deems to be an “old book,” but he does contrast it with ornate “luxury editions,” presumably new Folio Society-type exemplars of classic works. I think it is fair to interpret “old books” as being a subjective definition for any book that has gone through at least one previous owner and that shows some wear.
[17] Ibid., p. 67.
[18] Writing in 1931, Benjamin worried even then that his essay would make him seem like a man “behind the times.”
[19] Cioran, E.M. A Short History of Decay. New York: Arcade Publishing, p. 22.
[20] Of which I’ve quoted only a small fraction.


Zachary Pothier is a bookman, freelance editor, and grumbletonian living in Canada. Follow him on Twitter @TheDailyZack