What Books Bring You Joy?

I’m sure by now you’ve all seen the social media flap over Marie Kondo (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up) and her (much maligned) advice on decluttering books – including the outrage over her supposed instruction to ‘keep only the books that still spark joy’ (ideally less than thirty). The furor was such that I decided to watch the episode on her Netflix show  just to see what all the fuss was about (even though I was sure, no matter her advice, I wasn’t about to part with any of my book collection!)  While I, for one, would never presume to advise anyone on the art of tidying up (even though my husband was super excited by the prospect!), I think the debate over whether you should only keep books that still ‘spark joy’ is a wonderful one…because it reaffirms why so many of us love to live surrounded by our books.

Even though on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram there was a lot of anger and outrage, at the heart of Kondo’s advice there seemed to be some valuable observations about the joy books can continue to spark in people years after they were first read, the benefits of feeling connected to the books you own, as well as the practicalities that every book lover has to face (limited bookshelf space!!!).

I come from a line of book hoarders. Up until recently, almost every available shelf in my parents’ home contained piles of books until they realized the necessity of downsizing meant facing the dreaded task of sorting through their books. I felt their horror. After all, they had decades of book collecting behind them (including amassing a lovely antiquarian collection of English Civil War books which is hopefully going to a museum somewhere). My initial instinct was (of course!) to offer a home to any and all of their ‘orphaned’ books until my husband pointed out that we have no room for our own books let alone anyone else’s…which may be why the concept of books ‘sparking joy’ seems poignantly relevant to me now (not that I’m giving up any of my books yet!!).

In the infamous ‘book’ episode, Marie Kondo asks one of her clients to name the book he will ‘never let go?’ (his answer: To Kill a Mockingbird) and the starkness of this question made me think long and hard (I still have no answer – I have far more than just one book that I’ll ever let go!). Certain books, however, do stand out – like my Chalet School book collection that I obsessively collected into my early 20’s (these school stories were published sporadically and often very hard to find). Although I don’t re-read them anymore, I couldn’t bear to part with them – which must mean they continue to spark joy:)

I’m still resistant to the notion that I could ever declutter that many books (too many bring me joy) or select just ‘one’ to keep – but Kondo’s questions have made me think about why I keep the books I keep – after all, I don’t keep every book – I’ve donated many paperbacks, potboilers, gifts, and duds in the past. I am also an avid library goer (lest you think I’m a complete book materialist!) as well as an e-book buyer (clearly, far less bookshelf space is required for those:)).

According to Kondo, the books I keep on my shelf should (in theory) be those I’ve deliberately chosen as ones that continue to ‘spark joy’…but in practice, this is far more complicated. I keep books that have infuriated and challenged me, classics I was forced to read at school and never really enjoyed but (begrudgingly) learned from, reference books from my past careers (you know, just in case…), books that hold weird sentimental value I don’t quite understand, history books for periods I’ve not written about yet…and the list goes on (not to mention the vast TBR pile!). Sparking joy seems too simplistic a criteria when it comes breadth of emotions literature provides.

What about you TKZers? What do you think about Kondo’s decluttering advice when it comes to books? If she asked you, what is the book you’d never let go?


32 thoughts on “What Books Bring You Joy?

  1. I didn’t know there was a big social media flap over this. I’d heard her advice somewhere and I think I even tried it … for about 60 seconds. What is “joy” exactly? Partly, I should think, it’s the very presence of a book you read and enjoyed (thus, the word); or haven’t read yet but intend to; or you like the cover; or it’s a comforting reference; or a friend gave it to you; or, as you point out, Clare, collections. Heck, any number of reasons.

    My wife and I agree there is some cosmic law that holds that two days after you’ve given a book away you need something that was in that book.

    We also agree that we have to weed out our books due to the dearth of shelf space. So I’ve been going shelf to shelf with a goal of reducing them by 10%. I think so far my record is 3%.

    Books I won’t part with include the hardbacks personally autographed to me, and one that was autographed to my dad when he was a young man … by Clarence Darrow (his autobiography). Oh yes, and every paperback in my home that was published before 1970.

    • I love you and your wife’s cosmic law because it’s so true! My husband once tried to convince me we should follow someone’s advice (guy who founded Patagonia company I think) that you should only ever have one book (one!!) and that you pass it on to someone else before getting another. You can imagine my reply:)

  2. People know they can give me books, so they do. My keepers include Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (satsfies my love of mysteries and horses), Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I also love Gone With the Wind though that one seems to be a target these days. I don’t feel a responsibility to keep a book I didn’t personally purchase, so I read the first page or so of the ones I’m given. If I like it I finish it. If I don’t I pass it on.

    • Cynthia – love your ‘keepers’! I don’t tend to keep many books I didn’t like – except some of my book group books as the mere presence of the book on my shelf reminds me of the (hilarious and sometimes divisive) debate we had over it!

  3. Other than the brief blurb on FB about the “not more than 30 books” thing, I can’t say I’ve heard any of her advice. I tend to reject such advice out of hand, being the cynic that I am. I mean, work clothes don’t spark joy, but they have to be in my closet, so….

    Generally, I prefer a more spartan existence because I can’t stand clutter. In the realm of books, the passage of time has taken care of this for me. I buy less & less books in print, but rather on e-reader, because I can adjust the font. But depending on her definition of “sparking joy” my collection probably doesn’t qualify. I keep books that I may not be reading/enthused about RIGHT NOW, but know they will come in handy for future research.

    My quandary right now is that I have a large collection of Star Trek paperbacks I will be unlikely to read again–not because I love them less but because they’re that mass market paperback size with what is now to me smaller print. I hate to give them up and some of them may not have been converted to e-book yet (and those that are in ebook format mean more financial investment). So for now, they remain with me.

    I don’t collect knick knacks or clothes or shoes, but books and notebooks use up most of the physical space (I’m even worse with buying notebooks. LOL!)

  4. When we moved cross-country, there was a major book culling, but we still arrived with multitudinous cartons of books. I think the second things we bought were bookshelves (a bed being the first) and there’s still not room for all of them. I’ve cut back drastically on buying print books, using my e-reader for all but a few purchases.
    After getting about 300 books to judge for the Edgars, I had little trouble giving away most of them. Every now and then, I hold a contest via my blog or newsletter and gift surplus books to winners. But just looking at my shelves brings me joy.
    I could never pick a single favorite. Some I keep simply because they brought me joy when I read them the first time, even though I might never read them again. As the others before me said, there are different reasons to enjoy different books.

    • That’s the comment I get the most from movers when I move–on the many boxes of books. LOL!

      • Actually, we shipped out keeper books to our daughter, media mail, to keep the poundage down on the move. We told her, “maybe 10 cartons” but it was probably more like 50+.

  5. I think if you have a 150 books on dieting (I don’t,) they may be candidates for decluttering. I’m not sure why you’d get rid of your 31st favorite book. Sounds like misguided advice.

  6. The only books I get rid of are the ones I can’t finish reading. But every book I have read holds a little piece of my heart somehow. It has made me a better person and walked me through a period when I needed what it had to say, or the distraction from the events going on around me. In short, they become my friends. I can’t give my friends away! Although apparently, I have no problem with sticking them in a cardboard box and storing their excesses in my attic. I even have trouble returning my Kindle Unlimited reads so I can get another. Yep… I always experience a moment of hesitation before I click return and continue as if I will never see them again. Maybe I need therapy…

  7. My house is full of kids books and school books because I homeschool my six kids. You don’t know what it’s like to have too many books until you homeschool! Then you REALLY become a book hoarder, because you never know when you’ll need that one Usborne book of world history. We currently have five bookcases in a 900 sq ft apartment. I shudder to think what moving will be like. But we just have to have these books, man.

  8. Tough question, Clare! I keep (horde?) books for various reasons. Some are personalized to me, I’ve met or admire the author who wrote said book, the cover rocks, the pages are filled with sticky notes from my dissection of craft (novels) or research books (I wouldn’t write in them; I’m not a monster), and then there are the books I intend to read. I also have a few treasured first editions …

    One my favorite hardcovers is Silence of the Lambs, a first edition that a friend found in a used bookstore in Canada and mailed to me. I also hang on to author friends’ books.

    Choosing what to pass on is a nightmare. The only ones I part with are the books I didn’t enjoy, so I can understand why she’d say “spark joy.” The words mean different things to different readers. I had no idea this became “a thing” on social media. Hey, at least they’re talking about books, right?


    No one will tell me what books I should keep. It’s like asking a thin person, “Where’s a good place to eat?” They simply don’t know.

  10. Count me among the outraged.

    I have said here several times that my Dad was a librarian. He tended a large library in a government Indian boarding school, bringing it up to snuff that, when the school eventually applied for regional accreditation in the 1950s, the library was given especial commendation. And he did this on the budget of a federal government that placed the education of Indian students down somewhere with the preservation of the darned ducks and fish.

    Every comment I’ve read here, I think, was written by someone who understands the nature of books. I believe that the great majority of both the washed and unwashed do not understand the nature of books.

    Books are of a nature sort of like the joke the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff used to tell in the Soviet era: “In America, you watch television. In Russia, television watches you.”

    I don’t think I really have books. I think–and firmly believe–that books have me. It is therefore unthinkable for me to conceive the sentence that somehow summarizes the giving away, or getting rid of, books.

    Limited shelf space, overcrowded apartment, need to move–all be hanged as excuses to the downsizing of my book collection.

    I also previously said here that there will NEVER been as fine a library on the planet Mars or any other, if or when we ever colonize it, as the library my Dad tended. Oh, there may be information available–on or in electronic storage systems or other doohickies that hold bit, bytes, or buzzes and squeaks. But I doubt that either entrepreneurs or the feds or the other governments and corporations that seek to inhabit the Red Plant will give up space to books that could otherwise be used by a paying customer or paid cargo. I suppose someone somewhere will say–sigh–that “We need food and oxygen, not books.”

    But that will be their loss. Necessities of life over laying among the stacks and stacks of tomes, volumes, serials, leisurely joining Tom Sawyer drifting down the river, or looking up the stats for Babe Ruth’s lifetime records, or trying to whiff the bitter-sweet scents of the cherry blossom trees in Chiyo’s pre-World War II Kyoto. Seems to me that not having books, as many as one wants or needs, is akin to tearing lifeforce from one’s soul.

    So, as I said. Count me among the outraged. (One will find a fine illustration of that outrage in Cujo’s story, a tale I doubt will ever find its way to Mars.)

  11. I am the world’s most incompetent expert at decluttering. My packing advice is “When in doubt, leave it in.”. As a result I have never heard of Marie Kondo, and until now was completely and blissfully ignorant of the social media flap referenced. I understand the general philosophy of only having things that bring you joy, but why is 30 such a magic number? I have more than 30 cookbooks alone, and there is no way any of them are going anyplace, and I feel free to buy more anytime I bloody well please. I have a ridiculous number of books. So what? I will say that I do appreciate the invention of the e-reader, and now nearly all my book purchases are e-books (cookbooks remain an exception). I think anyone should have any and all the books in their home they care to own. Thirty books (shakes head). What’s next? Am I only allowed to have 30 pair of shoes??? Sacrilege.

    • I only discovered there was a flap after a whole lot of people starting posting things on FB – suitably outraged of course:) As for shoes, I guess the same criteria (sparking joy) applies…which would mean all of my high heels would have to go!

  12. Louis Lamour collection, Stephen King collect, Annotated Sherlock Holmes and sherlockian writings, and Spider-man

  13. I sort of agree with the “get rid of stuff that doesn’t bring you joy” thing. It works really well for jeans you will never get into in your lifetime and old bread makers taking up space in your cabinets. The “joy” lady did wonders for my closet. But books?

    No…they are living breathing things. They are like photo albums. You don’t need to open them to feel joy. Just having them “there” makes your life feel fuller because life is nothing but a succession of memories. So it is with books.

    They remind us of places we have been (in imagination) and friends we have made (fictional though they be). We can look at a book’s spine on our bookshelf and think, oh, that really moved me. How can we abandon them?

  14. I’m moving to a house half the size of my current one, so I’m in the midst of a long-overdue book (and everything else) purge. While this wasn’t inspired by Marie Kondo, I’ve read the articles about her advice with interest. I find her criteria of sparking joy too limiting, but her overall advice to look at what I own and ask myself why seems useful.

    I’m finding that an awful lot of the things I own, books especially, are aspirational – books on gardening (I only go outside to get in the car), handcrafts (none of which I have ever done), elaborate cooking (I think it’s a chore to cook both eggs and bacon at the same time), etc. Looking at them not only doesn’t spark joy, it makes me feel inadequate. So I’m conducting my purge in the spirit of accepting that I can’t live a dozen different lives at once and keeping only what’s appropriate for the one life I’m actually living.

    I’m keeping most of my history, cartography, art, and reference books. The newer fiction stays and the old favorites – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, The Blue Sword, Island of the Blue Dolphin, so many others. I’m guessing I’ll still have a ton of books when I’m done (a whole lot more than 30, that’s for sure), but a whole lot less than I have now.

  15. I needed t to declutter when moving to the US from the UK with my American wife as I had hoarded endless numbers of books over the decades. Since moving here in 2016, I’ve continued hoarding. My immediate choice to keep would be my late 70s hardback Lord of the Rings set. But then I think about other books – my late father’s copy of Old Mr Fox published in the 1930s, opera books of my Great Aunt’s, books that were nearly lost when my mother died – one published in the 19th century. But some of that is sentiment not joy – except re-reading Tolkien is akin to joy. The idea of de-cluttering is sound but we have to make our own rules as book lovers.

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