Book Internet has been all abuzz lately with furor over Marie Kondo’s advice about clearing out books. I haven’t seen her TV show, since I don’t do Netflix (too busy reading), but I have read her book, and I suspect that the people getting upset about her advice haven’t read her book because I thought her advice made a lot of sense.
For one thing, she never says you should have just 30 books. She says that as you go through the process of deciding which of your possessions truly “spark joy,” you’ll start to get the sense of the ideal number of possessions for you, what makes you feel happy and peaceful. For her, she’s realized it’s about 30 books, but she recognizes that some people, particularly writers, will need more.
The thing that I suspect is really getting to people is her idea that you shouldn’t have a lot of books you haven’t read, that if you don’t read a book soon after buying it, you probably aren’t all that interested in reading it and don’t need to keep it.
That actually makes some sense to me, but I don’t really have an ordinary To Be Read pile in that I didn’t buy most of my books. For someone who reads as much as I do, I don’t buy a lot of books. For the most part, I buy a book when I want to read the book, and it’s only traffic laws that keep me from reading it on the way home from the bookstore (I don’t even like Amazon because when I want to read a book, I want to go to the store right then and buy the book, not wait for it to be shipped to me). I’m actually more likely to get books from the library, so the books I buy are the ones I already know I’m going to want to keep, or they’re books I’ve already read and know I want to have my own copy of. The exception is my friends’ books that I buy to support them, usually at conventions or booksignings, and then they may or may not be something I want to read NOW or even something I’m super interested in reading. I don’t do a lot of book-buying sprees of buying random things that look kind of interesting, other than reference books at library book sales.
Most of the books in my Strategic Book Reserve are books I didn’t buy. One of the lovely things about being a writer is that people want to give you books. Writers read a lot and talk a lot about books, so a good way to get a book talked about is to give it to writers and hope they’ll talk about it and spread some buzz. If you go to writing conferences, you frequently get given a tote bag of books. Publishers may host signings where the books are free. At my first few conferences, I kind of went nuts with all the free books, but then I learned that I wasn’t likely to read them all. Now I’m very selective and only take the ones that really interest me.
But I still have a lot of books I haven’t read, and I’ve started sorting through them, being brutally honest with myself about whether or not I have any interest in reading them. Most of the ones I’m getting rid of are romance novels I’ve had for more than twenty years, and getting rid of those has been a weirdly emotional process because it means really facing my own goals and my choices.
My ambition has always been to be a fantasy or science fiction writer. I got sidetracked into romance during the summer after I graduated from college, when I was stuck on a farm while I looked for a job. There was no library in town, and the nearest bookstore was at least 15 miles away. Not that I had the money to buy books or the transportation, since my car had become unreliable and I had to borrow one of my parents’ cars to go anywhere. So, I read what was handy, which included my mom’s stash of Harlequin and Silhouette romances. I liked a lot about them, but didn’t ever find one that had me saying “yes, this is it, this is what I like,” so I had the common wannabe writer reaction of “I could do this better” and set out to try. When I did get a job and moved to the city, I looked for writing groups and stumbled upon a Romance Writers of America chapter. It was about the only really substantial writing organization that taught about the business and the craft. That strengthened my career goal of writing romances. The problem was, I hadn’t realized the difference between “I like this thing, and I think I could do it better than some of the people who are doing it” and “I like some things about this but don’t really like it, and I want to write it the way I like it.” I had some success, but I’m a classic overachiever, so I managed to power through and actually do it in spite of not liking it and not being all that suited to it, but it was a massive struggle. It was only when the romantic comedy chick lit books showed up that I realized that what I actually liked wasn’t genre romance. Then I got the idea to add magic and remembered that what I’d really wanted was to write fantasy.
Facing all those romance novels I’d amassed during that time when I was trying to be something I wasn’t meant facing the fact that I might have delayed my own career by sticking to the wrong thing for so long. It meant addressing my dishonesty with myself, my sense of failure, the sense of letting people down. It meant noticing the friends I’d had and lost when I drifted away from that world and the hurt that came from realizing that they didn’t seem to have missed me at all. But then it felt really good to be able to just hand those books over to the Friends of the Library for their sale and get all those old reminders out of my house. Clearing out the To-Be-Read books I will never read has made it easier for me to see and keep track of the books I might read, the more recent fantasy books I’m getting at conferences now, the ones I carefully choose out of all the ones in my tote bag.
Meanwhile, I’m going through my bookcases and rearranging the shelves, which means sorting through my old books, and I’m trying to be honest with myself about whether I’ll really re-read something, whether having that book makes me happy or whether it’s just taking up room on my shelf. I know I’ll end up with many times more than 30 books, but I think I’ll be much happier when the books on my main shelves are all things I’ve read, loved, and want to read again and when the To-Be-Read shelves are manageable enough that I don’t feel oppressed by them. I think that’s all Marie Kondo seems to be trying to teach people, so maybe we could ease off on the cries of “monster!”