On the first day of the year, Netflix dropped its highly anticipated new reality show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, based on the globally successful self-help book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Both the show and the book are based on the idea that we can declutter our homes – and our lives – by getting rid of physical things in our houses that don’t “spark joy” in us. This simply means getting rid of things like clothes, papers, books, and miscellanea that serve no purpose or carry no sentimental value; things like old sweaters we haven’t worn in years; directions for setting up the internet in a flat you moved out of in 2012; and books you were given before heading to university that you’ve not once touched (and never will).
In the show, Marie Kondo, the Queen Tidier and author/creator of this decluttering method, helps people who feel crushed under the weight of their mess chuck out the stuff they don’t want. In the space of a few weeks, using Kondo’s methods, these people manage to, happily, free up their homes.
When I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in 2015, I found it helpful. At a volatile, emotionally fraught time in my life, I managed to get rid of mounds of stuff in my over-crowded student bedroom and saved myself time every day by not having to dig around looking for previously hidden clothes, documents, makeup, and books. After reading it, I also felt like a more decisive person. I found these methods not only cleared my floor space but helped ease my perpetual anxiety by helping me be more selective with my time. I became calmer and more self-assured. The show, although hammed up in an American reality show style, seemed likely to have a similar effect on others.
So it was surprising to see how many Twitter users were furious at Marie Kondo for (literally, just) helping people get rid of their junk. News stories reported on the controversy. In particular, the backlash was focused on her encouraging people to get rid of books. Those outraged by the thought almost always punctuated their complaint with the assertion that they could never get rid of all of their books. They’ve read so many! Did you know they used to read loads as a kid? They weren’t like you, outside, PLAYING, participating in childish nonsense. They were tucked up with a good book!
Beyond the humble-bragging, these complaints were often underpinned by a healthy twinge of classism. Many of those announcing their grievances with Kondo’s methods simultaneously mocked and criticised the working-class families on the show for not having books in their house. The show didn’t fit their interests because they would never be able to part from a single book in their enormous, highbrow library. Those people on the show, the ones who don’t have books, though, of course didn’t have that problem to deal with.
To part with even one of my books would simply cleave me in two. How does Marie Kondo dare look her remaining volumes in the eye, knowing that she has cast out one of their less comely sisters?
— Bougie London Literary Woman (@BougieLitWoman) January 7, 2019
Next came the comment pieces and blog posts arguing for having as many books as physically possible (while of course slamming Marie Kondo for suggesting any other way of living). In the Guardian, Anakana Schofield expanded on her viral tweets, claiming that there was a place for books that didn’t “spark joy”.
“When it comes to the books, the advice is grim,” she wrote. “Books are not a reflection of our thoughts and values, because more often than not they reflect someone else’s, whether it is Lolita, Mrs Dalloway or Snoopy. Most of us don’t share the values of Adolf Hitler, but we may own many books about the Second World War.”
Here, Schofield is referring to a quote from the fifth episode in the 10-part series, where Kondo helps two writers overcome the clutter in their home – especially in terms of their swathes of books and papers. Speaking to camera, she encourages viewers to ask themselves a question when trying to tidy their books: “By having these books, will it be beneficial to your life going forward? Books are the reflection of our thoughts and values.”
Schofield’s piece is a misunderstanding of this quote, if not a misunderstanding of the entire Kondo method (perhaps deliberately so). In the quoted episode, one of the two writers Kondo helps says he feels the most joy when holding To Kill A Mockingbird, keeps it, and uses the joy he felt holding it as a benchmark for what kind of books he actually finds worthwhile to keep. His love of To Kill A Mockingbird does not mean that this man loves to read about painful injustice inflicted on helpless individuals, nor that he finds happiness in the violent racism of Fifties America. His “joy” derives from the fact the book sends a message that he finds moving, in the same way a World War II enthusiast may have books on Adolph Hitler not because they “find joy” in Nazism, but because it gives them an understanding of a dark period in history (the lessons from which carry deep value).
The idea that Marie Kondo thinks people shouldn’t have lots of books is also a misconception. By the end of that same episode, the two writers still have an enormous collection of books, enough that their home still has stacks of novels dotted all around their house. However, they asked Marie Kondo to come to their house to help them declutter, meaning they knew they would and actively wanted to cut down on their overwhelming library of books.
And, most of all, this is the key part of what the people complaining about Marie Kondo need to realise: The people who read Kondo’s book or have participated in her show are people looking for help. They feel overwhelmed, crippled by anxiety, and crushed under the weight of their hoarder-style homes. Kondo improves these people’s lives by giving them the tools to let go of what they don’t want – without, by any stretch, making them get rid of anything (books or otherwise) they feel they love or need. These people think they have too much stuff and have asked Kondo to come in and sort it.
If this isn’t you – or if your existential dread and anxiety predominantly come from some other source – then you don’t need this method. No one is making you do it. No one is saying it works for everyone. Marie Kondo isn’t suggesting everyone throw away their book collection. In fact, she isn’t telling a single person to do so. She is simply advising the people who have asked for her help to pick and choose what they value most. And if that means every goddamn book in their house, she’ll happily encourage them to keep each one.
After endless days of this debate, a friend said to me: “We need Marie Kondo for Marie Kondo takes. Does this harmless lady not bring you joy? Throw her away.” This is what we should get from Tidying Up. Marie Kondo is not trying to get you to bin anything you care about, nor is she trying to pry your beloved books out of your cold, dead hands. She is offering up a method for how to get one’s life organised, one that she has never claimed everyone needs. The people complaining about Kondo’s approach to dealing with books have not taken the time to understand her ethos. And if they did, they’d realise Marie Kondo is doing absolutely nothing controversial at all.