I’ve joined a few discussions lately, among friends, about following the advice of Marie Kondo to declutter our lives. Her method of organizing is known as the KonMari method, and consists of gathering together all of one's belongings, one category at a time, and then keeping only those things that "spark joy". Not a bad criterion. It reminded me of something Leonard Sweet wrote in Soul Salsa, “The more you live in place, the more your space becomes silted with artifacts.” Marie Kondo wants to help us remove some of that silt.
Cyndi and I, at least casually, use a slightly different guideline whether to keep something – we ask, does it have a story. Again, from Leonard Sweet, “Stories sanctify space. If those artifacts come without stories or purpose, no matter how beautiful or expensive they may be, you are turning your home into a garbage dump.” He suggested getting rid of anything that doesn’t have a story attached. The stories the items carry are usually about people and relationships, the most important part of life.
Where I depart from the Kondo trend is her suggestion we keep no more than thirty books. I am OK with that if you say “only thirty books per author per topic.” Even then, for an author like C.S.Lewis, I might be pushing the thirty threshold.
I’ve been in the process of arranging and rearranging my books for the past five years, but all I’ve done so far is make a mess. Since I keep adding to my collection, organizing is a dynamic target. I can’t decide which shelves should hold which topics, so I end up restacking my piles over and over.
And to be honest, this round of organizing is for my downstairs books only. The upstairs books fend for themselves. They should be happy they are still in the house and not given to Friends of the Library. And at least two bookcases of children’s books in our hallway belong to Cyndi, so she has her own organizing project to look forward to.
British author Penelope Lively was interviewed by Terry Gross of NPR Fresh Air in 2014, when she was 81 years old. Gross asked, “You have a gazillion books, right? Why hold on to all those books? You’re not going to be able to reread all of them. So, what’s your answer for why it is worth holding onto them, knowing that you probably don’t need to refer to most of them, you’re not going to reread them, and you might not get to the one you haven’t already read?”
I get those same questions myself all the time, often directly, sometimes from the expression in their eyes, more often from my own voice inside my own head. Why do you keep all of these? Don’t you own a Kindle? Why aren’t you using it? Why are physical books important to you?
Ms. Lively answered, “It’s simply that they chart my life. They chart my intellectual life. They chart everything that I’ve been interested in and thought about for the whole of my reading life. So, if they went, I would, in a sense, lose a sense of identity. They identify me.”
When I look at my shelves, I can chart my deepest spiritual influences through the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. I relive my deep dive to understand modern church and how to teach generations younger than me. I see my immersion into running, cycling, hiking, and backpacking. My path to becoming a better writer has two shelves of books. I even have a whole shelf dedicated to learning how to be a romantic husband.
In his book, What Matters Most, Leonard Sweet wrote, “Just as the kinds of friends we choose decide the kind of person we become and the direction life takes, the stores we relate to most closely structure our identities. Some of the most important choices we make are our companion stories – the stories we choose to live with. It takes only a few basic stories, or what scholars call deep structures, to organize human experiences.”
I choose to live with books; they bring me great joy. And since I’ve never felt the urge to count them, I’ll just assume I have thirty.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32