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Undeterred by Kondo, let your library overflow



Most authors are keen for their books to be on your shelf. Presumably Marie Kondo is no exception, an author who has made a name for herself with instruction manuals for household management. She is the queen of declutter, which means she can assert her authority to tell you that the right number of books to keep in the home is 30. That's not a minimum figure, that's the maximum.

Author and series host Marie Kondo poses before taking part in Netflix's Tidying Up With Marie Kondo screening and conversation at 92nd Street Y on 8 January 2019 in New York City (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)Perhaps she gets away with saying 30 because she has good delivery. Presumably among the 30 books still remaining on your shelf post-declutter are those written by Kondo. You never know when you might need to reach for your downsize bible, the way things stack up on a weekly basis. Which of your 30 books you retain is up to you. The main idea is to simplify your living space, and therefore your life, in every particular.

Jeanette Winterson somewhere years ago pronounced that a person's library should be about 100 books. She is an author of persuasive directness who seems to have grown up in a home where books were anathema. Or not even anything so reactive. Books were not to be had in the environment. Such a puritanical childhood could leave a person wondering if books had any value at all, so even to achieve 100 under one roof could be judged a breakthrough. It is like opening the floodgates, more especially if some of the books are the wrong kind of book.

When we consider how many people do not have 100 books it can seem like an adventurous figure, but if your library exceeds triple figures as a norm, it suddenly looks quite tight. I guess Winterson wanted something manageable, a resource where all her favourite writings, influences and references were within easy reach. Don't we all? While 100 books should be the basis for a classical education, or just an education, and we would expect Winterson's 100 to be quality reading, her pronouncement implies there is such a thing as enough, even in self-education.

Derision is the general response of booklovers to Kondo's magical 30. Asks the modest meme: Is that 30 books in every room? Does she mean the 30 books on my coffee table or the 30 against the sofa? The 30 on my nightstand? Readers with 3000 books see no need to stop. What's life for if not acquiring more books than you will ever read? Thirty books take up a medium bookcase. It fits nicely in a picture you post to your friends online, a shelfie where all one's books are catalogued in a single photograph.

There are readers who are on ten books at the same time. Some, 20. Ideally, a bookcase of 30 suits such readers. The Kondo quota matches their appetites, even if voraciousness was not what Kondo had in mind. Impatience as well as derision. Annoyance greets her minimisation of an essential asset. Thirty books in every room, perhaps. Would she demur? One is too busy reading to bother counting. Let each of us find our own limit.

Kondo lives in a world of things. Things 'spark joy', but they take up space. Things stop serving their purpose. Get rid of things! This is all very well if your home is full of lumber you will never ever revisit. It's all very well to remove excess unused furniture, but furniture is not books. How many chairs does someone need? Chairs are not books. To reduce a library as a household expedience is to objectify the books. Their contents are emptied of value and their history relegated to out-of-date. They have no more meaning than books in an Ikea display room.


"The physical book, as distinct from its fairytale electronic copies, has the comic ability of reminding you of its existence. It's why we return and renew acquaintanceship, just by noticing its presence."


It's the pantry theory of book collecting. A cupboard of 30 herbs and spices operates by the rule, replace the cinnamon when you use up the cinnamon. Is that how anyone keeps a personal library? Seldom. It's the home decorator's theory of collecting. If Anthony Powell thought books do furnish a room, then Marie Kondo argues for a mere spot of colour, an example of literature in every home: books do decorate a room. It is an over-socialised theory of belongings. If you are someone who has something of everything then books are on the bucket list. But we wouldn't want things to get out of hand. One hundred books, in Kondo's world, is the road to excess.

How many books do you need? I expect that each reader has a different answer. There is no rule. The only exception is a house with no books: a disconsolate scene. For me, the books to keep at home are any that I may wish to reach for at a moment. They are the books that I must have should the occasion arise; the books that liven the hour or solve the issue in a second; the books that it's nice to have around the place; the books that serve memory and become part of my own long-term memory; the books that register meaning when placed beside similar books.

They are the books, of course, that constitute my core business; the books that have become part of the furniture, not just the bookcase; the books that contain the pictures that open worlds never imagined; the books of images historians strain to explain in words; the books for rainy days and Mondays; the books for the sickbed and recovery ward; the books that savour lost times; the books unique to the owner; the books almost forgotten that spring to life from another century; the books that contain pressings; the books with old letters; the books that pop-up; the books that are uncut; the books that took a lifetime to make.

Because, in truth, no one should tell you how many books to have in your home. In this respect Winterson is no different from Kondo. No improvement at all. Granted, both speak with a sense of purpose. Kondo wants to help you make your life easier by ridding it of junk. Winterson has her own ideals as to how a library best serves it owner. Though neither is laying down ultimatums, the message is nevertheless crystal: book ownership should be quantified.

The opposite extreme of this position bears the motto: There is no such thing as too many books. This motto would offend Winterson because it counteracts her residual puritanism. It might just very well extol excess and lead to waste. It may introduce more ideas than a person can possibly cope with in a given year. You might be crowded out of your own home by bibliographical desire. The motto offends Kondo because it contradicts simple, uncluttered living. While Kondo may only wish to simplify things, her certainty about 30 remains with us, a reprimand to a house full of books. Everything in its place, which with books means over there between the cactus and the water feature, and for as long as they spark joy.

They say that inside every thin man is an orotund man trying to expand his horizon. Perhaps it's the Les Murray in me, but I believe in sprawl. I also believe in possibility, visible and invisible. The beauty of books is that they express worlds without end. The physical book, as distinct from its fairytale electronic copies, has the comic ability of reminding you of its existence. It's why we return and renew acquaintanceship, just by noticing its presence. The possibilities do not vanish with a touch of the icon. Few of us ruminate over a lifetime about an online article with the lifespan of its link.

The line where enough books is crossed and becomes too many books, is fuzzy. It's not just that rules about book limits are arbitrary, they ignore the reasons why people read in the first place and why they build libraries. While there are booklovers addicted to collecting, they are still selective. They are surrounding themselves with a shared knowledge about the world, a shared sense of wonder. The question is not Kondo's, do I have enough to keep my place spick and span? Nor Winterson's, have I attained my optimum resource base? The question is, do I have enough shelves?



Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Main image: Author and series host Marie Kondo poses before taking part in Netflix's Tidying Up With Marie Kondo screening and conversation at 92nd Street Y on 8 January 2019 in New York City (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, books, literature, Marie Kondo



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Existing comments

I've always liked the description "voracious reader". It neatly sums up the passion and purpose of reading. Imagine being a "tepid reader". Ugh. There are some books I can part with. However, there are quite a number I cannot part with and so I keep an eye on them.

Pam | 08 February 2019  

Marvellous, Philip!

John | 09 February 2019  

30 books? No thank you. Why Books and How Many? Gregor Samsa? No. Joseph Knecht (The Glass Bead Game). That's why: A friend of mine who's spinal cord was growing too quickly, wore a cast and was bedridden in his room, ( 2.5 meters by 2.5 meters of books) for more than 12 months when he was 16 years old. How many? I remember asking, Around 500, he replied. Read all? I asked. Yep, he said. To read 2000 books is a great goal. Why 2000? Because it's a nice number. 30 books? No thank you.

AO | 09 February 2019  

'The question is, do I have enough shelves'? To which the answer is, ideally, "No"!

Joan Seymour | 09 February 2019  

Churchill: "If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition." (Sadly I could not lay my hand upon the book in which I know I first saw this line from Winston - had to look it up online!)

Richard Jupp | 11 February 2019  

Delightful article, Philip. Books are not things. They are the personal presence of their authors—and in fiction of characters created in them—always ready to speak again to us if we choose to take them off the shelf. I love going into rambling old homes where books are everywhere, in corridors, hallways, sprawling out of shelves. It's always a sign that an agreeable person lives there, of curious, hospitable mind, bringing the new into conversation with the treasured old.

Brendan Byrne | 11 February 2019  

Thanks Philip for an encouraging counter to the declutter movement!

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 16 February 2019  

One of life's great joys and consolations, in my opinion, is the company of good books and the fine minds that engendered them. The idea of limiting their number arbitrarily is therefore repugnant to me. How can you have too many poems, stories, essays, reflections, and whatever else gives you food for thought and spiritual sustenance? Thank you for sharing your feelings about your loyalties to your books. The books we love are among our truest friends.

Jena Woodhouse | 16 February 2019  

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