Before I go, I have something to say

Books to Go

Everybody knows moving is one of the most stressful life events. Only . . . it’s not true. The BBC debunked this stubborn myth two years ago, putting “moving into a new home” way down behind one hundred other stressors. Your response to this news may be the same as mine – How on earth can there be one hundred other circumstances worse than moving?

So I tell myself it’s not stressful at all that Bob and I are now on the fast track to a new address. We bid on a house, put our present house on the market, and now we are dancing as fast as we can to jettison unnecessary possessions before moving day arrives. At the same time, we are trying to make our house look spotless and impersonal, so would-be buyers can imagine their own hoarded stuff arranged around our rooms. All the more reason to toss things overboard.

When our realtor kindly pointed out that the two six-foot bookcases in the living room might look better  if there weren’t so many books slotted horizontally above the properly shelved volumes, I vowed to wrestle them into submission. As a serial English major, I cannot live without books, but as a librarian, I know all about weeding them.

Last year I came across a small book that has taken the country by storm –  a small, neatly organized storm. Written by an enthusiastic young Japanese woman named Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is not only a bestseller, it is a phenomenon. It has been on the Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous bestseller list in the New York Times for over seventy-five weeks, currently at number one. Now a second book has joined it on the list. Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up is longer, more strict, and sprinkled with childlike line drawings of rabbits attempting to organize their homes (if rabbits lived in houses with too many catalogs, shoes, and coffee mugs).

I did my best to ignore the advice of Ms. Kondo, plunging ahead with my own haphazard plan. It worked astoundingly well. I found, for example, that after decades of hauling my four-volume set of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels around, I only want to keep The Great Gatsby on the shelf. I dumped most of the complete works of John Fowles, leftovers from a very good college course, keeping only two  – The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and The Collector. I want to remember the narrator’s compelling voice in the first one, and the heartbreaking notes kept by the victim in the second. I want to remember, and I want to be able to quote.

All of Ann Patchett’s books made the cut, because she is my favorite living novelist. I used to feel so confident with the novels of Amy Tan and Ann Tyler that I bought them as soon as they came out, in hardcover. By now I know which ones to keep, which to offer to charity. Every book its reader, as librarians like to say.

So I got rid of the excess and kept what I wanted to, all without a bit of help from Ms. Kondo. Winded from my weeding, I sat down to find out how she would have had me do it differently. She believes we should rid ourselves of any book we’ve already read, because it’s already been experienced. But how can I remember; how can I quote? She also says, “get rid of the whole lot” of books we’ve never finished, denying us the pleasure of having something new to dip into on a snow day.

If we’ve saved any books because they contain beautiful pictures, she advises cutting out those pictures, putting them into a clear plastic folder, and trashing the rest of the book. She happily promises that it won’t be long before we’re ready to ditch the folder of pictures, as well.

So what does she tell us to keep? Only books that, in her words, “spark joy.” And how do we know if a book sparks joy? Why, by taking it in your hands and waiting to feel something. If you feel anything but joy, out it goes. If you have a whole series of books – say, everything so far in the Game of Thrones saga – you are told to pile the whole series together and put your arms around the pile, “as though hugging it.” Feel joyous? Keep them all.

But what if I feel anguished with a book about climate change in my hands? Or if my heart aches holding Sophie’s Choice? The end of The Color Purple left me sobbing. Is that joy? Are we to turn out anything that brings us unease, anger, despair? How realistic is it to court only joy on our bookcases, or in our daily lives?

Some books bring us comfort. I keep an alarmingly sentimental book, Rainbow Cottage, penned by Grace Livingston Hill in 1934, because it bestowed such solace during my divorce. I keep Emma Donohue’s searing novel Room because her depiction of an abducted woman and her child is as compelling as it is distressing.

I can live with the KonMari Method (as her rules are called) if I can define “joy” so it makes sense in the real world. Novelist Ayana Mathis got it right:  “Joy is nothing like happiness, its milquetoast cousin. It is instead a vivid and extreme state of being, often arrived at in the aftermath of great pain.”

Marie Kondo urges us to thank the items we discard. While I may not bow to my old t-shirts, as she instructs, I can see the value in patting some books goodbye, saluting their time with us. Then send them back out into the world, hardbacks and paperbacks, to meet – and to move – their next readers.


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