Organization Guru Marie Kondo’s Tips for Dealing with Your Massive Piles of Unread Books (or What They Call in Japan “Tsundoku”)

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is Britain’s num­ber-one best sell­er at the moment, and it’s about punc­tu­a­tion, and no, I don’t get it either,” writes Nick Horn­by in his Feb­ru­ary 2004 “Stuff I’ve Been Read­ing” col­umn for the Believ­er. What explains how Lynne Truss’ guide to the prop­er use of com­mas, semi­colons, and dash­es became such a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non those thir­teen hol­i­day sea­sons ago? Horn­by the­o­rizes that every­one had some­one in mind to give a copy, whether a punc­tu­a­tion pedant them­selves or some­one whose skills in the area could use a sharp­en­ing, ulti­mate­ly pre­dict­ing that “in the end the book will sell a quar­ter-mil­lion copies, but only two hun­dred peo­ple will own them.”

Some­thing sim­i­lar may have hap­pened with Marie Kon­do’s book The Life-Chang­ing Mag­ic of Tidy­ing Up, first pub­lished in Japan in 2011 and in Eng­lish in 2014. Now peo­ple all over the world have read it to learn the sim­ple secrets of Kon­do’s “Kon­Mari method” of declut­ter­ing — or have giv­en it to friends and rel­a­tives they see as bad­ly in need of such a method. Still, all but the most ascetic of us occa­sion­al­ly bend to the hoard­er’s instinct in cer­tain areas of life, and it would sure­ly sur­prise none of us to find out that Open Cul­ture read­ers have, on occa­sion, been known to let their book­shelves run over.

Hence the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Jonathan Crow’s post on tsun­doku, the Japan­ese word for the unread books that pile up unread in our homes. Japan, a land of small domes­tic spaces but a great deal of stuff, has paid spe­cial atten­tion to the prob­lem of hoard­ers and the gomi yashi­ki (or “trash man­sions”) in which they some­times end up. Some observers, like pho­tog­ra­ph­er Kyoichi Tsuzu­ki, cel­e­brate the ever-present threat of total dis­or­der; oth­ers, like Kon­do, go on not just to attain guru sta­tus by sell­ing books, but then to show fans how to tidy up all those books they’ve accu­mu­lat­ed.

“Many peo­ple say that books are one thing they just can’t part with regard­less of whether they are avid read­ers or not,” Kon­do writes, “but the real prob­lem is actu­al­ly the way in which they part with them.” The way she offers requires adher­ence to cer­tain prac­tices and beliefs, includ­ing the fol­low­ing:

Take your books off the shelves. Kon­do recommends–often against the objec­tions of her clients–first de-shelv­ing all their books and pil­ing them on the floor (that is, the books that haven’t spent their entire lives in such a state). “Like clothes or any oth­er belong­ings, books that have been left untouched on the shelf for a long time are dor­mant. Or per­haps I should say that they’re ‘invis­i­ble.’ ” Pos­si­bly draw­ing on what she learned from five years spent as an atten­dant maid­en at a Shin­to shrine, she ren­ders them vis­i­ble again, as you can see in the video above, “by phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing them, expos­ing them to air and mak­ing them ‘con­scious.’ ”

Make sure to touch each one. Only with your books con­scious can you “take them in your hand one by one and decide whether you want to keep or dis­card each one. The cri­te­ri­on is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of plea­sure when you touch it.” Not when you read it (start­ing to read or even open­ing any of them can, she warns, derail the entire project) but when you touch it.

“Some­time” means “nev­er.” We all own books we tell our­selves we’ll get around to one day (a habit which must have led Horn­by to rig­or­ous­ly sep­a­rate “Books Read” from mere “Books Bought” in his col­umn), but Kon­do sug­gests that the accu­mu­la­tion of books with only an intent to read them in the non-imme­di­ate future lessens the impact of the books you do read. “Tim­ing is every­thing,” she writes. “The moment you first encounter a book is the right time to read it. To avoid miss­ing that moment, I rec­om­mend you keep your col­lec­tion small.”

Lithub’s Sum­mer Bren­nan recent­ly wrote up her own expe­ri­ence of weed­ing out her per­son­al library the Kon­Mari way. Bren­nan breaks the do-not-open rule and finds let­ters, lists, tick­ets (both flight and traf­fic), pho­tos, bills, receipts, and even a high-school hall pass stuffed between their pages. Con­tra Kon­do, she argues that our books “are not imper­son­al units of knowl­edge, inter­change­able and replace­able, but rather recep­ta­cles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morn­ing hopes and late-night sor­rows, car­ried in hon­ey­moon suit­cas­es or clutched to bro­ken hearts. They are memen­tos, which [Kon­do] cau­tions read­ers not to even attempt to con­tem­plate get­ting rid of until the very last.”

Some of the books we own may spark joy, in oth­er words, but almost all of them spark a range of oth­er feel­ings besides. Even so, the hol­i­day sea­son hav­ing come upon us again, we’ve got no choice but to make at least a lit­tle room on our shelves — or our floors — to accom­mo­date the new books we’ll no doubt receive as gifts. Farewell, then, to all those extra copies of best­selling punc­tu­a­tion guides. Only after they’ve gone will we see about breath­ing some life into the vol­umes to which we’ve grown more deeply attached. After all, a year’s end, as many a writer knows, pro­vides the ide­al time for reflec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

Change Your Life! Learn the Japan­ese Art of Declut­ter­ing, Orga­niz­ing & Tidy­ing Things Up

7 Tips for Read­ing More Books in a Year

What’s the Fastest Way to Alpha­bet­ize Your Book­shelf?

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Paula Buerger says:

    I recent­ly moved apart­ments after 9 years. I bought Marie Kon­do’s book because I want­ed advice/help to cull as much as pos­si­ble before mov­ing. I found it very use­ful for weed­ing and orga­niz­ing my clothes and oth­er belongs­ings, but as a book lover and Librar­i­an I remem­ber read­ing her ideas about books and real­iz­ing that we were nev­er going to agree. Still, I man­aged to divest myself of about a quar­ter of my col­lec­tion, to the amaze­ment of every­one I know. I still have 800+ books and have not stopped buy­ing [nor will I ever]. One thing this move has taught me, a room full of books is my hap­py place!
    As in all advice books, some ideas are help­ful and some are not. Use what works for you.

  • Ted Mills says:

    A nice bal­ance to this arti­cle is Austin Kleon’s response:

    tl;dr: She’s bet­ter re: socks than books.

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