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Good Letters

image of stacked books via creative commons

Three weeks into 2019, I haven’t even managed to see the trailer for the new Tidying Up With Marie Kondo show on Netflix, much less watch the thing. That’s not the case for most Americans, I gather—at least those with high-speed internet connections, who apparently gulped down the eight-episode series with vigor.

And the series had barely been out before Twitter “erupted”[1] with outrage about a statement attributed to Kondo, that as they tidy up their houses and lives by only owning what “sparks joy,” they should optimally own only 30 books or fewer. [2]

That was the moment that bibliophiles across America crawled (ha ha) off their shelves. Articles and memes griping about it spread across digital media like streaks of hot grease—like the one the young National Review writer Alexandra DeSanctis tweeted: “I’m told that tidying up expert Marie Kondo says you should only keep 30 books so you can prevent clutter and I’m over here like ’30 books on my nightstand, you mean?'” (I just went and counted 24 on mine.)

Now we’re well onto the final act in the media crisis: CNN posted that Marie Kondo doesn’t really want you to give away your books and now Paper magazine and others have published accounts that the 30 Books Only crisis is really the result of racism, orientalism, and/or white fragility.

I suppose that could be the case—although I know enough bibliophiles of color that it doesn’t seem so clear cut.

My own first instinct was to be as miffed as the anti-30 Books Only faction was, because the notion of having only 30 books went against not only what I had been taught, but more importantly, what I’d absorbed. I grew up in a house with an OK number of books, but one that had too many encyclopedias, Reader’s Digest Condensed editions, and a few creepy tomes like None Dare Call It Conspiracy.

The real goal was to have hundreds of books, displayed in the floor-to-ceiling manner of built-in white bookcases—as seen in grand New York apartments, casually interspersed with photos in sterling frames and scattered party invitations. As such, the notion that books were now clutter startled me, because having a lot of books was the ratification, and reification, of the kind of person I wanted to be.

Well, I have them now—a few thousand of them in a little midcentury brick suburban house, stacked on the coffee table, in the two living room bookcases, and arrayed three rows deep on the big IKEA shelves in my bedroom. I can no longer find things for which I am looking. More than once, I’ve resorted to one-click buying them again.

So I’m forced to admit that Kondo may actually have a point. But it’s not only my personal books that are overwhelming, it’s the publishing industry in general.

For years now, my husband and I have worked for the media, and every weekday, the mailroom carts wheel in dozens of promotional and galley copies of the next season’s lists. The interns tear open the jiffy bags and manila envelopes, then pile up the copies for the editors, who mow through the piles and throw out almost all of them. Over the course of only a week, the Free Book Shelves in the kitchen are themselves piled with hundreds, the special Modern Library art editions and edgy university press scholarly works thrown out—right alongside the diet books and Real Housewives memoirs.

There’s nothing quite like picking up a book on the Free Book Shelf, then having the creamy vellum of a monogrammed card fall out, carefully written by the author or her publicist: “Dear X—It was so good to see you in Aspen last summer. I think you’ll really like Suzanne’s poignant feminist drama of Polish nobility, inspired by Chopin’s Etudes.”

Or the heartbreak of a book lovingly signed by the author, then thrown out by the writer to whom it is dedicated: “ Hey Y—Thanks for the research help, the wine, and the weekend in Provincetown. I could not have done this without you.”

It’s a grim prospect for someone who’s writing a book, or who’s published one—in a country, no less, where almost nobody reads. I’ve told my husband to no longer bring home any galley versions, but to wait until the final copy is released. So I get something of what Kondo asks us to consider.

The trouble is, I never know exactly which book is going to “spark joy.” The downside to the Kondo method is that it does not allow for the element of surprise, for the mysterious spirit I’ve always felt when I pick up a book I have had awhile, but never read, and suddenly known that now was the time I was meant to read it. Just a few weeks ago, I picked up Janet Peery’s novel The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, which I had been carrying around for more than a year after plucking it off the Free Book Shelf, and its hilarious but agonizing portray of family and addiction in the middle of Kansas. It was exactly what I needed to be reading the week before Christmas and New Years.

Just the other day, for example, I was putting laundry in the dryer in the basement when I found, covered with dust, A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia. And on the page it fell open to, I read this passage from Parmenides:

            There is still left a single story

              Of a way, that it is. On this way there are signs

            Exceedingly many—that being ungenerated it is also


            whole and of a single kind and unshaken and complete.”

Isn’t that the consummation to which all books point?

[1] My husband says that it’s a rule of thumb for him that anything claimed to make Twitter “erupt” or to “break the Internet” is something devoutly to be avoided.

[2] It’s claimed that Kondo’s statement has been taken out of context, that she was only stating this principle for herself. I haven’t watched it, remember, so I don’t know.

For another Good Letter on writers navigating the perils of the publishing industry, read “When Publishers or the Public Reject You” by Peggy Ronsenthal.

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Written by: Caroline Langston

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.

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