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How many books is too many?

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/28/19

Inspired by Marie Kondo, a book lover attempts to de-clutter his bookshelves...with hilarious results.

In Marie Kondo’s Netflix show called “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” the organization guru helps clients deal with out-of-control clutter in their homes. Because of the show, her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is gaining new readers and one particular bit of advice is causing a stir: She says we should tidy up our bookshelves. And she claims to personally own just 30 books.

For Kondo, each item we possess should “spark joy.” Anything that fails to meet the mark is taking up space and we’d be happier without it. I’m sympathetic to her point of view, actually, but I admit to laughing out loud at the thought of even considering the idea of having only 30 books. My personal library is so out of control it’s basically a member of the family at this point. Kondo’s suggestion that maybe, just maybe, people like me should consider getting rid of our books has provoked a heated reaction — bibliophiles are having none of it.

I try to be open-minded though, so once I got over my heart palpitations, I resolved to get rid of a few books. This, friends, is not a story with a happy ending. I did not discover freedom. I did not soar away on eagles wings, reveling in my newfound weightlessness. Instead, this is the sad story of one man’s failure to master his bookshelves and how he gave up and accepted his fate as a cluttered person in a de-cluttering world. That man is me, and this is how I tried – and failed – to instill order to my bookshelves…

First off, claiming that all my books are on shelves is a lie. Some are on shelves, yes, but others are piled in corners of the living room, on the fireplace mantle, and on the bar with bottles of gin sitting on top of them. My library has burst forth from its natural habitat on shelves and hit my house like a meteor, leaving vast debris fields of Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen novels scattered everywhere.

Second, I don’t even feel bad about it. My mind harbors a lingering sense of guilt, but my heart doesn’t see it the same; it beats to the rhythm of the tome of Shakespeare sonnets I have tucked away somewhere. To me, it just doesn’t seem cluttered. Kondo makes a good point when she advises that attachment to books is personal, “It’s not so much what I personally think about books. The question you should be asking is what do you think about books.” I’m obsessed with them…. That’s what I think… Send help.

That said, I feel an obligation to my poor family who have to live with my books and I admit that, to an outsider, things may appear to be out of control. So in spite of the obstacles, I pressed on and here’s what happened: I took a deep breath, lovingly gazed at the books, and tried to identify a few to eliminate. As I looked, I remembered when I had first read each one, how old I was when I read it, and where I lived at the time. Some books even brought to mind a cup of coffee by the fire or a day at the beach. They were bursting with nostalgia, so I moved my focus to other types of books. There was the old Greek dictionary, but what if one of my kids wants to learn Greek someday? And that book was expensive! I looked for titles that wouldn’t be re-read, but really, how do I know if I won’t re-read it? I might. These are the thoughts that jumbled in my conflicted mind. In the end, I filled a few small boxes with books, told them, “It’s not you, it’s me,” and resolved to donate them. As of the the writing of this article, the boxes are still in my house.

If you’ve had this experience, you’ve probably asked yourself how many books is too many. All our lives, we’ve been told that books are an indulgence we shouldn’t feel guilty about, and that there’s no such thing as too many books. Strictly speaking, I’m not sure that’s true, but as Kondo says, “If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you…what’s clearly so important in your life.”

So perhaps, rather than limiting ourselves to an arbitrary number, we might ask ourselves why books are so important to us.

I’ve wondered why I want them so badly and what it says about me. Is it to impress people who visit and is it wrong to serve someone a cup of coffee and then innocently claim that, since I don’t have any coasters, I’ll gently slide this copy of War and Peace across the coffee table for them to use? Oh, that little book? I’ve only read it a few times!

It is possible that displaying our books is a way of bragging. It’s definitely a temptation to watch out for, but I don’t think this is why people love to keep lots of books in their homes.

Here’s a thought… We want books around because they’re our friends. We love the people in them and feel like the authors have shared a bit of themselves with us. Both writing and reading are acts of love, and through a book we make a genuine connection. It feels ungrateful to toss a book out in the same way we would never push a friend out the door. So, when wondering how many books is too many, we might ask ourselves – Can we ever have too many friends? And if all those friends spark joy, then we may have our answer.


Read more:
3 Lessons about minimalism from St. Francis of Assisi


Read more:
3 Lessons about minimalism from St. Francis of Assisi

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