A slightly edited version of this reverie appears in Eureka Street under the heading 'Undeterred by Kondo, let your library overflow'.
Most authors are keen for their books to be on your shelf, and the world overflows with authors. Presumably Marie Kondo is no exception in this regard, an author who has made a name for herself with instruction manuals for household management. She is the queen of declutter, which means she can assert her authority to tell you that the right number of books to keep in the home is thirty. That’s not a minimum figure, that’s the maximum. Perhaps she gets away with saying thirty because she has good delivery. Presumably amongst the thirty books still remaining on your shelf post-declutter are those written by Marie Kondo. You never know when you might need to reach for your downsize bible, the way things stack up on a weekly basis. Which of your thirty books you retain is up to you. The main idea is to simplify your living space, and therefore your life apparently, in every particular.
Jeanette Winterson somewhere years ago pronounced that a person’s library should be about one hundred books. She is an author of persuasive directness who seems to have grown up in a home where books were anathema. Or not even anything so reactive. Books were not to be had in the environment. Such a puritanical childhood could leave a person wondering if books had any value at all, so even to achieve one hundred under one roof could be judged a breakthrough. It is like opening the floodgates, more especially if some of the books are the wrong kind of book. When we consider how many people do not have one hundred books it can seem like an adventurous figure, but if your library exceeds triple figures as a norm, it suddenly looks quite tight. I guess Winterson wanted something manageable, a resource where all her favourite writings, influences and references were within easy reach. Don’t we all? While one hundred books should be the basis for a classical education, or just an education, and we would expect Winterson’s 100 to be quality reading, her pronouncement implies there is such a thing as enough, even in self-education
Derision is the general response of booklovers to Marie Kondo’s magical thirty. Asks the modest meme: Is that thirty books in every room? Does she mean the thirty books on my coffee table or the thirty against the sofa? The thirty on my nightstand? Readers with three thousand books see no need to stop. What’s life for if not acquiring more books than you will ever read? Thirty books take up a medium bookcase. It fits nicely in a picture you post to your friends online, a shelfie where all one’s books are catalogued in a single photograph. There are readers who are on ten books at the same time. Some, twenty. Ideally, a bookcase of thirty suits such readers. The Kondo quota matches their appetites, even if voraciousness was not what Marie Kondo had in mind. Impatience as well as derision. Annoyance greets her minimisation of an essential asset. Thirty books in every room, perhaps. Would she demur? One is too busy reading to bother counting. Let each of us find our own limit.
Marie Kondo lives in a world of things. Things “spark joy”, as she likes to say, but they take up space. Things stop serving their purpose. Get rid of things! This is all very well if your home is full of lumber you will never ever revisit. It’s all very well to remove excess unused furniture, but furniture is not books. How many chairs does someone need? Chairs are not books. To reduce a library as a household expedience is to objectify the books. Their contents are emptied of value and their history relegated to out-of-date. They have no more meaning than books in an Ikea display room. It’s the pantry theory of book collecting. A cupboard of thirty herbs and spices operates by the rule, replace the cinnamon when you use up the cinnamon. Is that how anyone keeps a personal library? Seldom. It’s the home decorator’s theory of collecting. If Anthony Powell thought books do furnish a room, then Marie Kondo argues for a mere spot of colour, an example of literature in every home: books do decorate a room. It is an over-socialised theory of belongings. If you are someone who has something of everything then books are on the bucket list. But we wouldn’t want things to get out of hand. One hundred books, in Kondo’s world, is the road to excess.
How many books do you need? I expect that each reader has a different answer. There is no rule. The only exception is a house with no books: a disconsolate scene. For me, the books to keep at home are any that I may wish to reach for at a moment. They are the books that I must have should the occasion arise; the books that liven the hour or solve the issue in a second; the books that it’s nice to have around the place; the books that serve memory and become part of my own long-term memory; the books that register meaning when placed beside similar books; the books, of course, that constitute my core business; the books that have become part of the furniture, not just the bookcase; the books that contain the pictures that open worlds never imagined; the books of images historians strain to explain in words; the books for rainy days and Mondays; the books for the sickbed and recovery ward; the books that savour lost times; the books unique to the owner; the books almost forgotten that spring to life from another century; the books that contain pressings; the books with old letters; the books that pop-up; the books that are uncut; the books that took a lifetime to make.
Because, in truth, no one should tell you how many books to have in your home. In this respect Jeanette Winterson is no different from Marie Kondo. No improvement at all. Granted, both women speak with a sense of purpose. Kondo wants to help you make your life easier by ridding it of junk. Winterson has her own ideals about how a library best serves it owner. Though neither is laying down ultimatums, the message is nevertheless crystal: book ownership should be quantified. The opposite extreme of this position bears the motto: There is no such thing as too many books. This motto would offend Winterson because it counteracts her residual puritanism. It might just very well extol excess and lead to waste. It may introduce more ideas than a person can possibly cope with in a given year. You might be crowded out of your own home by bibliographical desire. The motto offends Kondo because it contradicts simple, uncluttered living. While Kondo may only wish to simplify things, the certainty of thirty remains with us, a reprimand to a house full of books. Everything in its place, which with books means over there between the cactus and the water feature, and so long as they spark joy.
They say that inside every thin man is an orotund man trying to expand his horizon. Perhaps it’s the Les Murray in me, but I believe in sprawl. I also believe in possibility, visible and invisible. The beauty of books is that they express worlds without end. The physical book, as distinct from its fairytale electronic copies, has the comic ability of reminding you f its existence. It’s why we return and renew acquaintanceship, just by noticing its presence. The possibilities do not vanish with a touch of the icon. Few of us ruminate over a lifetime about an online article with the lifespan of its link. The line where enough books is crossed and becomes too many books, is fuzzy. It’s not just that rules about book limits are arbitrary, they ignore the reasons why people read in the first place and why they build libraries. While there are booklovers addicted to collecting, they are still selective. They are surrounding themselves with a shared knowledge about the world, a shared sense of wonder. The question is not Kondo’s, do I have enough to keep my place spick and span? Nor Winterson’s, have I attained my optimum resource base? The question is, do I have enough shelves?