Tidying Up Our Library

Today I tried to sort through a number of reading lists I keep on Amazon.com in order to find a few new things to read.

I failed. Quickly.

A minute amount of arithmetic can show us why. If I dropped everything else of interest to me and developed greater discipline than I’ve exhibited in the last several years and devoted all of my free time each day to reading, I might, possibly, get through all of the titles I’ve accumulated in my lists in about… five years.

Five years straight of regimented reading. And of course these titles were accumulated over a period of about five years, so by the time I finished, I’d have my reading for the next five years ready to go. An endless fight, I could make my way through the stacks until life itself exceeds me and I succumb to my war wounds, surrounded by loved ones and my unread materiel.

Trying to sort these potential odysseys, I became overwhelmed and soon the books sorted me. How did I get here? What am I really trying to do? What is the point?

Every book I’ve encountered and subscribed to my lists (there are 22, by the way, starting with “American History”, ranging through “Farming & Ecology” and ending with “Social Science”) represents a hope for mastery and wisdom. Each represents one human being’s life work, in many cases, or at least a component piece of a corpus representing everything they’ve learned about a specific area of human inquiry they’ve devoted their energies and attentions to understanding.

So I grabbed them by the bushel, the box, the bundle, and stuffed them into 22 unique intellectual genuses for my future edification. Are you seeing the problem here?

This is intellectual hoarding on an epic scale. And each hope hides a dying regret, that I didn’t learn all of this sooner or at some other time in my life.

There may have been many opportunities to learn everything there is to know about Ancient Roman social and political and philosophical history; of EO Wilson’s sociobiology and studies of ants; of comparative studies in global religious traditions and the historical implications for host societies; of the supreme importance of mycelia (read: mushrooms) for soil health in one’s home garden or the world at large; of what the Founding FathersĀ really meant by the words they wrote in the Constitution and why the USĀ really is a unique and special polity on the world stage.

But I didn’t. And I have to learn to accept that fact and let all these possible, potential, unrealized versions of me go. I know 80% more about philosophy than the average yokel, but I will never truly know Nietzsche. I made it this far without such arcane wisdom and I’ll have to see if I can make it a bit further.

It’s hard for me to let go of all the time I spent finding this stuff, though. In some weird combination of the sunk cost fallacy and the labor theory of value, it seems like because I spent all this time and had all these dreams it’d be a shame to just, hit the delete key, and watch these lists get disappeared out of some internet memory bank.

Instead of wholesale, scorched earth reset, I am considering utilizing Marie Kondo’s “spark joy” principle. I will scan my list and imagine, briefly, pulling each of these titles out of a freshly delivered Amazon.com box and holding it in my hands, feeling its weight and staring at the cover in person for the first time. How do I imagine myself feeling in that moment?

If I am ready to forget whatever it was I was doing the split second before the package arrived because I am too eager to sit down and begin reading, this title is capable of “sparking joy” for me. It touches something of my true essence, my actionable values, and a case can be made for keeping it on a shortlist for purchase if not ordering it immediately.

Everything else is getting torched. If it doesn’t spark joy for me now, it might spark joy for me never. It would be wasteful to maintain the delusion that I’m going to get to it one day and worse still to make the mistake of actually buying it. Then, Amazon’s inventory investment problems become my own. And I have no retail platform!

Some might suggest that there is value in maintaining a personal library. Here’s a recent picture of mine:

This is not every book I’ve ever owned nor every book I currently own. Sadly, I have more books than this and in more places than this. Many have been read. Some never will be. If the idea that I’ll eventually read all of these books is insane, the notion that some are worth keeping for re-reading or reference is marginally less connected to reality. Who has time for this? I don’t.

One of my greatest joys in reading has been discovering books and chasing down my own rabbit holes. Maintaining a library says something like, “One day, someone in my family or one of my friends or someone who cares about me is going to be really excited to chase down all my old rabbit holes like I did.” That day isn’t coming, but one in which your loved ones, a friend or someone who cared about you (maybe because they’re being paid to haul away your garbage and remains) tosses your books in the dump, is. It’s vanity to collect books as if it represents some important intellectual legacy you’re preserving for others.

That being said, maybe as part of family governance there are a select few titles that the patriarch (or matriarch) insists family members become familiar with as part of a shared family intellectual culture. That seems reasonable. But in the photo above, such selections would probably be able to fit on an individual division of one shelf at maximum.

Besides losing some nice wall art, you would gain some space if you stopped having a library and copious lists of books you’ll never actually read. You might also gain some freedom and satisfaction. What does it do to your soul to carry all that stuff you’ll never do and all the knowledge you’ll never have stuck in books you’ll never read, to carry it around in the back of your mind, day after day? What limitations do you set on yourself here and now when you spend any amount of time punishing yourself for what you aren’t yet but might be one day?

So, just let it go. If it’s important, if it’s you, it’ll come back to you one day when you go looking for it.

Review – The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

by Marie Kondo, published 2014

This is a work of philosophy under cover of personal organization and household habit. The question at the center of the book is “Why do you own what you own?” Put more bluntly, it is, “Why do you have so much stuff you don’t use and never will?” If those don’t seem like profound questions, maybe you don’t live your life and enjoy your material existence in a thoughtful way.

The book’s weakness, ironically, is in the specific tidying, folding and organizing methods Kondo advocates. Reading on Kindle, I did not find any helpful pictures or diagrams (but thankfully, there is a wealth of videos on YouTube where people have demonstrated her techniques) and I found the text-explanations of how to fold or where to store different things in a closet generally confusing. I believe my confusion will be relieved with some practice and patience in experimenting with different techniques over time. But if you’re hoping to learn the “KonMari Method” for folding, storing and the like, I don’t think this book is the best resource.

Instead, the book’s strength is its principles– always key to the strength of any philosophical work. Kondo suggests a general method for tidying one’s living space– start with your own possessions, then move to shared possessions; begin with clothes, then work through to other easily accumulated items such as books, kitchen and toilet supplies and finally to trinkets and trash; when tidying by category, locate ALL such possessions throughout the home and dump them in a pile on the floor before sorting. Anyone can grasp the principles of this method regardless of their specific circumstances. Her criteria for keeping things (note: this is a positive criteria, NOT a negative criteria for determining what to eliminate) is to hold the object and ask oneself, “Does this spark joy?” It seems ambiguous, emotional… subjective. But that’s the point! It’s a deeply individual approach to tidying. Neither Kondo nor anyone else can tell you what objects bring happiness to your life and which you can do without, you have to sense that on your own.

As a rational person I was alarmed by this at first. It seemed goofy and mystic, maybe not even serious. “Spark joy”, I don’t think in those terms. But I gave it some time and realized it made sense. I started thinking about shirts and sweaters and pants I look for an excuse to wear. I have a pair of corduroys, for example, that almost make me excited for cold weather. And then I have articles that are just taking up space in my dresser and closet, items that I can never seem to find a good opportunity to use them but nonetheless I keep holding on to them because they still fit and they are nice and in good condition. But every sweater I have that I don’t wear and won’t get rid of is another sweater I can’t acquire that I might actually enjoy.

When Kondo pointed out the cost of storing all this useless stuff, I was floored. I would never pay for a “self-storage” unit somewhere, or turn my garage into anything other than a place to put my car. In fact, I regularly shake my head when I peer into neighbor’s open garages as I walk past with my dog seeing them bulging with stacked crap all the way up to the door. What on earth are these people thinking? They’re never going to use this stuff!!

But then I realized that all the items I keep around my home that I have no use for is effectively absorbing part of my rent each month– I am paying to store these items! And what’s worse, as Kondo points out, much of the time these are items I bought in bulk to “save money” but which are in such significant supply that they will last me multiple months if not years. I am effectively floating the manufacturer’s inventory and parking part of it in my home, or thought of another way, I am subsidizing his production by buying several items I don’t really need and won’t ever use with each one I do need. Rather than saving money, I am costing myself– once for buying more than I needed and twice for paying to store it in my home. For me, I’d argue a third time with the emotional cost of being aware of and surrounded by these unused possessions that continually fail to “spark joy.” Just the other day I bought a pack of 12 pens for annotating books as I read. I was unhappy with my previous pens and wanted to try something new. I didn’t need 12 pens, I needed 1 or 2. But I bought 12 for around $10 because I was “saving” money over buying a pack of 3 for $5. The problem is, it turns out I kind of hate these pens and now I have enough to last me a couple years at my current rate of use. Kondo made this so clear to me!

Another startling revelation was the way I’ve shifted some of my own tidying burden to family members. It’s hard to visit my childhood home at times because my parents have a bad case of hoarding. But I’ve had no problem storing my finished or unread books in an unused room of the house I used to occupy when I occasionally stop by. One part of me has been mentally scolding my parents for hoarding and not cleaning up their living space. But another part of me has been dumping off my own clutter on them, completely unaware! I have resolved to go over there and dump a bunch of the stuff that remains.

While I am excited to declutter clothes (and look forward to the opportunity to purchase new articles I might actually enjoy wearing with the newly freed space), hallway closets, linen storage, bathroom and kitchen cupboards and more, one area I struggled with was her suggestion for decluttering one’s library. I love books. Or, rather, I love the idea of reading my books. But Kondo helped me clarify another meaningful point– many of the books I purchase and do not read were meant only to gratify my own ego, ie, “It’d be so great to know more about X.” When I purchase a book and don’t read it for months, I probably won’t read it ever. The inspiration and desire to study that topic has come and gone. I have made the mistake, time and time again, of purchasing far more books than I could ever hope to read and that I will ever be able to sustain an interest in. It’s wasteful.

There are a few books I really do enjoy and which I will read again. There are books I’d like to keep which I may not read again, but which I believe my children will gain a benefit from studying at an appropriate time in their life as I did. You can argue that it’d be better to buy them their own copy at that time, which is true, but this is a limited case in which I am okay holding on to a few titles for them in the meanwhile. But most of the books I own that I haven’t read yet, won’t get read– they’ll remain as costly monuments to an ambition not realized. And many more which I have read and absorbed from them what I can will similarly sit on my shelves unused as a monument to the hope that there is more juice to squeeze. But the pulp is dry at this point. I have made another resolution, which is to keep the few titles I know I will re-read because I’ve re-read in the past, the few titles I want to share with my kids and the few titles I am excited to read in the next month or two at my normal pace of reading. Everything else (read, unread) is getting sold or donated. I want to have a limited library of titles that “spark joy” and feel good to see on my shelf and not a stack of paper that I subconsciously feel a burden to get to as some kind of project.

Marie Kondo’s “Life Changing Magic” invites us to live our lives more consciously and to purchase, use and store with purpose. Any book that helps me to resolve logical contradictions in my own thoughts and actions is valuable to me. I took far more away from this book than I thought I would going into it given that I already have a reputation for being a neat freak!