I am unpacking my library. The initial author of that line, Walter Benjamin, understood that a book collector’s passion “borders on the chaos of memories.” Had I stuck with Benjamin, I might have gotten on with the long-deferred task of shepherding my books from their basement bunker to the places where they belong. Instead, as a delaying tactic, I consult Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano, which has hovered at the top of best-seller lists for almost a year.
The author is a leading practitioner of “the Japanese art of decluttering,” as the subtitle has it. A tidying virtuoso and professional cleaning consultant, Kondo began training at the age of five by studying ladies’ magazines and picking up after her schoolmates. “[W]hile other kids were playing dodge ball or skipping,” she writes, “I’d slip away to rearrange the bookshelves in our classroom, or check the contents of the mop cupboard, all the while muttering about the poor storage methods.” Over time, Kondo came to view the process of putting one’s house in order as a rebirth; she likens it to the discipline of meditating while standing under a mountain waterfall. Her ideas owe much to the Shinto, Buddhist and American self-help traditions.
The particulars of time, space and geography have kept the better part of my library in darkness for far too long. While I don’t much care for this subterranean system—it is onerous—I rely on it for want of something better. Whenever I need to locate a book among the banks of cartons in my latest basement, I consult the map in my head to determine its approximate location, and I weep.
Kondo’s solution to the problem of having too many books is to get rid of them. If the title in question does not produce “a spark of joy” you see it off, to land anywhere but in your home, impinging on your floor space and cluttering up your mind. Her promise is that as the number of joyless things you own diminishes, a sense of well-being will bloom. “Books are essentially paper,” she writes. “Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves.”
But what about those of us who are forever dipping in and out of books in search of half-remembered passages or just plain solace? Will I ever reread Don DeLillo’s Underworld? Maybe not, but on more than one sleepless night I’ve picked my way through the dark, liberated the unwieldy volume from the living room cabinet, turned to its prologue, and immediately entered into narrative time. He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.
Often I feel weighed down by my library. A glance at Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is enough to arouse in me the dream of casting off so much printed matter and setting forth without aim—becoming, in his ringing phrase, “a weather-exposed skeleton.”
Almost invariably, this desire is superseded by the counter-desire to have all my books in one place. Sometimes I think of Benjamin, again, who wrote of “the dialectical tension between order and disorder” that governs a true collection. And now I picture Kondo, who offers a portrait of herself at home, appreciating flowers in a vase while sipping herbal tea and reflecting on her day. We, too, can feel “happy and content,” she implies, by creating a space where one’s train of thought is not annoyingly derailed by the printed word, the better to live in an eternal “now.”
From a Western vantage, Kondo’s organizing philosophy seems very Buddhist. Except it isn’t. The central teaching of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and in the classic texts joy scarcely rates a mention. More to the point, in Buddhist training one attempts to perceive everything as part of the whole. For the old masters and their disciples, there was no discrimination between a joy-giving flower and a tuft of scutch grass or a mean old thistle. They kept no more than they needed and threw nothing away—not a carrot top or an onion skin, far less a pair of shoes. In an inversion of Buddhist philosophy, Kondo tells of clients in her native land who have, individually, filled over two hundred garbage bags with items that have lost their luster.
Kondo’s philosophy is predicated on the belief that personal belongings have spiritual agency. An object “freed from its physical form […] will move about your world as energy, letting other things know that you are a special person, and come back to you as the thing that will be of most use to who you are now, the thing that will bring you the most happiness,” she writes.
And therein lies the secret of her cross-cultural appeal: By assuring us that nothing is ever lost, Kondo gives us license to dispense with articles that aren’t contributing to our immediate well-being, right here and now. No graduate of her tidying course, she asserts, has ever suffered a relapse and refilled the void, not even the ones who went on to appoint their freshly decluttered homes with new furniture.
But I digress—as one is prone to do in a book-cluttered house. Time is passing, and I have frittered away an hour at my desk, absorbed in Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. In the north of France, village storytellers will feign reading from a cherished book they have memorized. Invested with meaning by its owner, the object is a conduit to the realm of myth. As Manguel notes, “The possession of a book endows the reader with the power of creating a story, and the listener with a sense of being present at the moment of creation.” Something about that idea fills me anew with the longing to unpack my library, and this time I do not fight it.
According to Kondo, when a book is not read it goes “dormant.” To reanimate a work that is neither living nor dead, she recommends a clap of the hands or a gentle caress of its covers. When engaged to bring order to a home, Kondo kneels on the floor, greets the house and its appurtenances, and asks for their assistance in her mission. She hopes the home will then communicate which of her clients’ belongings have “fulfilled their purpose.”
Kondo was for five years a Shinto shrine maiden. Following her method, one piles all one’s books into the center of the room and awaits the appearance of joyous sparks. Under no circumstances is the tidier to open a dormant volume during the procedure. “Reading clouds your judgment,” she instructs. “Instead of asking yourself what you feel, you’ll start asking whether you need that book or not.”
Unfortunately, I barely get going before I’m ambushed by an urge to reread the first pages of P. G. Wodehouse’s The Little Nugget. The Little Nugget! The mere mention of the title gives me the giggles. I can picture the frayed mustard-yellow boards, the title in blue ink, the distinctive smell of wood pulp and decay rising up from the loose pages of my 1938 edition. To hold that particular copy again would be like meeting an old friend after a long absence. “Ten thousand books and a ghost crouching over every one,” wrote Elias Canetti in his 1935 novel of bibliomania, Auto-da-Fé. What would Kondo make of that? She says:
Just as the word implies, mementos are reminders of a time when these items gave us joy … When you think about your future, is it worth keeping mementos of things that you would otherwise forget?
As I rummage through my Wodehouse box in search of the lost volume, I recall the friend who gave it to me. He was a writer whose Wodehouse collection, bought as a young man, occupied the top shelf of a bookcase. From my friend’s late teens until his early twenties, the British comic novelist’s band of blighters, scallywags, and coves were his familiars. It wasn’t until the last months of his life, after immersion in works about genocide and the nature of evil, that he decided it was time to reread old P. G.
“I think we ought only to read books that bite and sting us,” Kafka once asserted. “If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” For much of his career my friend read, and wrote, novels that sought to have this effect. Given his love of work that radiated what the poet Edward Hirsch has described as “a dark wisdom,” I’ve since wondered why he did not choose to reread a novelist of greater reach than Wodehouse in his last days. I think it was because the prospect of death had completed art’s work and cracked him open. Why read about the human predicament when you’re caught in its teeth?
Although frail and weak, my friend, still reading The Little Nugget, had memorized the passages that delighted him. For weeks thereafter he would recite them with glee, and in this manner they became part of me too. I recall that it was not the opening paragraph’s description of Mrs. Elmer Ford pacing her hotel room “like a caged tigress or a prisoner of the Bastille” that amused him, but of her son, Ogden, the titular protagonist, “a singularly repellent little boy of about eleven,” who is known as the El Dorado of the kidnapping industry.
Then I remember: I swapped The Little Nugget with my friend for The Small Bachelor, also by Wodehouse, which has remained on my desk, unread, a year and a half after his death.
The town where I live has orphaned books at every turn—abandoned in the foyer of the public library, tossed in the recycling bin at the town dump, ditched on park benches. I wonder about these books with their tight spines and spotless pages. Were they bought on a whim and found wanting? It would be easy to look away from the castoffs were they potboilers or bodice-rippers or superannuated text books aswarm with silverfish. But fine copies of novels capable of delivering clean blows to the skull and breaking the heart ? How to account for the offhand treatment of them? Were the divesters induced by an all-powerful cleaning consultant to renounce their demanding books? Whatever the reasons, the phenomenon chimes with Kondo’s attitude—and of the culture at large—that not only are paper books disposable but that they should lift the spirits too.
When I first read Kondo, I thought much of her advice on organization excellent if cloyingly anthropomorphic. (Among the thanked in the acknowledgements are “all my possessions.”) She’s brilliant on closets. But the part on books reads like a satire about a dystopian society where raptureless objects are put to death.
While from a certain high-minded perspective a skeleton library could have its virtues, Kondo isn’t talking about reading and rereading the masters until their works become part of one’s mortal consciousness. No, she’s coming at the problem from an altogether different angle. “Books you have read,” she explains, “have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember.” Next!
As testimony to the cognitive and psychological benefits of book culling, she offers a conversion narrative drawn from her youth. One day, frustrated by her efforts to achieve perfection in tidying, the young Kondo collapsed on her bed in a paroxysm of despair. Presently she heard a voice. “Look more closely at what is there,” it said. Like a mystic graced with a vision, she realized, “We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.”
Years later, this insight would serve as her guiding principle when sorting through her books. At one time, she recounts, she had a large collection that she knocked down to a hundred volumes. But that was not good enough. “I felt that I could still reduce,” she writes. Upon analysis, she realized the problem derived from books with “words and phrases that moved your heart and that you might want to read again,” but that gave her only “moderate pleasure.” There followed an unfortunate experiment that involved ripping out only the pleasing pages. After laboring to transcribe select passages into a commonplace book, she realized she had no interest in seeing any of this material ever again, whereupon she abandoned the books and the practice without regret.
Kondo says that owning fewer books has sharpened her powers of recall. Since limiting her private library to a rotating selection of thirty volumes (hidden away on a shelf in her shoe cupboard) she is able to grasp and retain new “information” with ease. Followers of her methods report the same effect.
I open another carton of books, and another story about my friend comes hurtling into the room. Years ago, I rented the ground floor of a two-story Victorian. The entrance to my quarters was through a side door, which opened into an unfurnished room with low ceilings, listing floorboards, and high windows. Stacked against the walls of this room were bankers boxes filled with my books, which had arrived by freighter from Europe, in mail sacks, a few years earlier. Having no bookcase, I didn’t unpack them. Since I was renting the house from people who would soon want it back, it seemed efficient to keep them by the door.
One afternoon my friend stopped by to collect me for a walk, to look for migrating birds. He remarked at once on the heavy oak table in the center of the otherwise bare space. I’d bought the table for three individual payments of 75 dollars from an acquaintance who told me it was made at the turn of the last century. I’d never owned a dining table, I explained a bit defensively. Before my friend could respond, I added that I had been eating at the kitchen counter, like a person in an empty bar, or on the tatty old sofa, which had taken the same ocean voyage as the books. As he knew, I read on the sofa. By then I was speaking very quickly and resorting to Mediterranean gesticulation.
Surrounded as I was by such a lot of flotsam, I said, indicating the misshapen boxes, I treasured this table. Ever since it had come into my possession, just a few days before, it had occupied the emotional center of my nascent domestic life. So close to the kitchen! Convenient for dinner parties! Having been itinerant for ages, was it wrong to want this one sign of stability? My friend listened without comment. He gazed at me with pity and amusement. The look in his eyes said, “Enough of your persiflage!” Feeling ridiculous, I went to get my coat. When I came back into the room, the table was gone.
My friend was a tall, powerfully built man, but he was not young. Apart from my grandmother, he was the oldest person I knew. He was also the most willful and restless and driven. Yet with who-knows-what combination of stubbornness and rough magic, he picked up that massive oak structure and noiselessly bore it across the house to an isolated front room. With a slight change of perspective, he transformed it from a dining table into a reading desk.
Close reading was work , this new reading desk taught me. It required a proper chair and good light and a dictionary close at hand and a hard surface for taking notes. On the sofa, I used to read in a trance. But when I trained myself to sit up straight at my desk, far from the teakettle, I found that I inhabited the page in an active way, as if I were summoning each word into existence. And sometimes those words suggested words of my own, which I attributed to the combination of chair and table.
My friend worked in a messy old shack on the far edge of his property, where the conventional boundaries between inside and outside did not exist. Brown leaves, slugs, beach sand, mouse droppings, bits of shell and the chitinous carapaces of great winged insects blew in through the open door and never left. They settled on the Moroccan carpet and his two writing tables and the top edges of heat-warped books. They also lodged themselves in the crevices of slumping gap-sided boxes jammed with manuscript pages and news clippings. Although nothing in his office had a fixed place, within that randomness a mysterious calm took hold.
There is no such thing as absolute order, the space seemed to say, only randomness and arbitrary patterns that we impose upon the world. As Benjamin, surveying his library, put it, “The chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”
“One theme underlying my method of tidying,” Kondo writes, “is transforming the home into a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy. A comfortable environment, a space that feels good to be in, a place where you can relax—these are the traits that make a home a power spot. Would you rather live in a home like this or in one that resembles a storage shed?”
To which my only reply is: One person’s storage shed is another’s cabinet of wonders.
Keeping a library carries obligations. Since moving to the house where I live now, I’ve refrained from acquiring more books. For a long time I obtained novels from my friend. Then he fell ill. When that happened, suddenly the books I owned—the ones that arrived by steamer all those years ago and the foundlings and the editions passed among friends—seemed a terrible encumbrance. He, on the other hand, needed ballast—he needed the weight of paper to keep him here. I gathered up all but a dozen of the books he had passed along to me and arranged them around him in a circle. Now he was safe. To my relief, he did not protest that he no longer needed them. In fact, he didn’t say a word, just nodded.
In the wake of loss, words are drained of their agreed-upon meanings. Narrative time, which is to say linear time, reveals itself as a fiction. And although stories can save a life, and even change one, they can’t bring it back. For all her gifts, not even Scheherazade, possessor of a vast library, could return the dead to the living. In the absence of the people we hold dear, stories and the impulse to read and to tell them are all we have.
Of late, when reading, I catch myself wanting to ask my friend, “But what about—?” “What did you think of—?” “How does this work?” “Why—?” Although I have other writer friends, good ones, I cannot put these particular questions to them for fear that their answers might silence my memory of his voice, which in recent months has dropped to a whisper. The questions I asked him were closest to the ones I ask myself when I read, but when he was alive, his answers were always more incisive than mine.
A while back I put his remaining books, the dozen I hadn’t given back, into storage. Now I remove the cardboard lid and peer inside the box. Smudged with ink, dashed with bits of chaff and leaf litter, marked by squashed sow bugs and petrified honeybees, they are relics from the forest floor. I pick up Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and open it to a random page. In lead pencil, with characteristic firmness, my friend had underscored:
Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?
Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.
Marks on a page, made by an absent hand. Ghostly demarcations or proof of life? “To renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things.” (Benjamin again.) Renewal is what we do each time we revisit a book. It’s not only the text that holds meaning, but the thing itself and the imprint that time and lived experience have left on it.
I would like to report that for a moment the previous owner of those books—or his shade—was there with me, that the contents of the box changed into something rich and strange, that I experienced the deepest mystery revealed. But that would be another fiction. If he had in fact materialized, I would have said to him: I wish we were inside a Wodehouse novel, one of those stories in which it was always a sparkling day, and all the girls were pretty. I wish I’d taken back my copy of The Metamorphoses, if only to remind myself that we are all of us in transit. I have seen just one yellow warbler since you died.
I am unpacking my library. There is no other animate presence in the room. Beyond the glass sliders, a family of deer mooch about in the woodland, stripping the pin oaks of their leaves. A hairy woodpecker—bigger than a downy—ascends the trunk of a birch. Silver-gray light glints through the trees. I bring The Writing Life to my face and inhale. A sharp odor redolent of mold and wood pulp and damp earth rises off the page.
And then I have a sneezing fit and my nose begins to run because the book really is a terrible old thing, possibly even lethal—are those mouse droppings?—and decrepit beyond repair. The room is in shadows and the discard bin empty but for Terrorism and Kids and Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age, both rescued from the town dump. The books from across the ocean are still in their mail sacks, and that is where I think I’ll keep them for now. Pruning the dead wood from a library is a serious matter, one that requires sustained focus and a willingness to be bitten and stung. I put away The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and open Benjamin’s essay on book collecting, and begin to read again.
Photo credit: Brian Weiterman (flickr)