Marie Kondo and Books: Tidying Up the Misconceptions
The Netflix reality TV show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo premiered on January 1, 2019. Based on her bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014), the show follows Kondo as she brings her process into the homes of a diverse cast of clients. Her process, called the KonMari Method, involves sorting items into five categories and deciding to keep or discard them based on whether or not each item “sparks joy.” Kondo’s passion for tidying and decluttering is evident throughout the show’s eight episodes.
I was initially skeptical, as I originally had been of her books, but watching Kondo’s interactions with her clients in their personal spaces gave me a new appreciation for her method. Kondo never shames her clients for their possessions nor does she pass any sort of judgment whatsoever.
Unfortunately, in our cynical culture, the negative reactions to the show’s refreshing positivity are sadly predictable. Some of the criticism towards Kondo has been subtly racist, overly focused on her appearance, or based on the cultural biases of those who are unfamiliar with her Shinto roots.
But the part of her process that drew the most ire was her philosophy regarding how many books to keep. A popular meme cites Kondo as stating, “Ideally, keep fewer than 30 books,” paired with a black and white, Don Draper-type illustration of a man responding, “No one needs that kind of negativity.” The maxim about keeping 30 books has since spawned numerous Twitter threads and think pieces, all excoriating Kondo for telling people to get rid of their books and to only keep such a seemingly limited number. There’s just one problem: framing her words in this way is a misrepresentation of what she states in her book and her actions on the show.
As a librarian who has also spent time researching memes in the past few years, I realized instantly that something was off. From a feminist lens, it also bothered me that Kondo’s words and intentions were being twisted in this way. Meme origins and how they spread fascinates me, so I needed to figure this one out. It turns out that the idea of keeping 30 books does come from Kondo’s own book. In chapter three, she elaborates on how to sort through each category of clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, and sentimental items and make decisions about what to keep.
She is forthright about her own struggles in whittling down her books. After various time-consuming attempts such as journaling favorite passages and even tearing out pages to keep in a filing system (which, surprisingly, escaped the notice of her critics), Kondo states that she ultimately decided to keep her personal “collection of books to about thirty volumes at any one time.”1
Later she also notes that “a book lover might not need anything but books.”2 Rereading these passages, I was struck not just by her candor but how refreshingly honest she was about her personal journey towards finding what worked best in her own life. It also left me wondering how so many others seemed to miss the bigger picture of her message.
In an interview with Indiewire following the outcry, she has since clarified that “the question you should be asking is what do you think about books. If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you how passionate you are about books. . . That in itself is a very important benefit of this process.” She further addressed the confusion over her words, stating: “I do think there is a misunderstanding of the process, that I’m recommending that we throw away books in the trash or burn them or something. I always recommend donating them, so if that’s part of the misunderstanding, then that’s certainly being mixed up.” What Kondo ultimately is trying to say is that we should consider the meaning of information in our own lives by asking if it’s inherent to the number of books we decide to keep.
In episode five of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, “From Students to Improvements,” Kondo works with Frank and Matt, a young gay couple who want to organize their home in time for Frank’s parents’ first visit. Both men are writers and have a good amount of books that they have difficulty parting with during the process. Kondo asks them, “by having these books will it be beneficial to your life going forward?” They begin the KonMari process of taking each book off the shelf and holding it to see if it sparks joy. Kondo then says something that blows any criticism of her feelings about books out of the water: “Books are the reflection of our thoughts and values. So by tidying books, it will show you what kind of information is important to you at this moment.”
As they continue the process Kondo also checks in with Frank and Matt by asking them if it’s difficult to go through their books. She never rushes them or any of her clients through the process. Instead, she takes the time to understand their feelings with genuine empathy and then gives them space to complete the tasks on their own. It turns out that, in this episode, books serve as a teaching moment for Kondo’s method.
There are other touching moments in this episode that have become overshadowed by the book debate, such as when Frank and Matt donate clothes and other items to Out of the Closet, a chain of thrift stores operated by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation that provides medical care to people living with HIV and AIDS. In reviewing commentary about the show, it’s unfortunate how few articles focus on the positive LGBTQ representation in this episode and the last of the first season, “When Two (Messes) Become One,” which features a lesbian couple, Angela and Alishia. Both couples are presented as facing the same challenges with clutter in their lives as others on the show, which also includes an African American family and an older couple. Would more space have been made for those discussions were it not for the debate about books?
The distortion of Marie Kondo’s words and actions is a perfect example of the way that social media and the Internet both manufactures and reproduces misinformation. Yet such confusing messages surrounding books don’t only come from Kondo’s detractors. Authors such as Umberto Eco are often revered for having kept large personal libraries, which can reflect a type of privilege that unfortunately equates the number of books with a level of knowledge.
Consider also tsundoku, the Japanese word for acquiring more books than you could ever read. Although, it seems that even this word has been co-opted in the defense of keeping one’s books. The Japanese characters translate literally to “pile up” and “read.” Perhaps it goes without saying at this point that a pile could be as few as 30 books rather than 300 or more.
“We read to know we’re not alone” is a quote from author C. S. Lewis that has stuck with me since childhood. I have my own substantial book collection that must be culled over the next several months, and I understand the deep attachment to books both sentimental and waiting to be read. Books inspire possibility in ways that few other physical objects can. So even though Tidying Up With Marie Kondo has sparked many discussions about her approach to organization, perhaps it ultimately serves as a reminder to us all about the role of information and what we value the most in our own lives.