Marie Kondo v. Tsundoku: Competing Japanese Philosophies on Whether to Keep or Discard Unread Books

By now we’ve all heard of Marie Kondo, the Japanese home-organization guru whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up became an international bestseller in 2011. Her advice about how to straighten up the home, branded the “KonMari” method, has more recently landed her that brass ring of early 21st-century fame, her own Netflix series. A few years ago we featured her tips for dealing with your piles of reading material, which, like all her advice, are based on discarding the items that no longer “spark joy” in one’s life. These include “Take your books off the shelves,” “Make sure to touch each one,” and that you’ll never read the books you mean to read “sometime.”

But as a big a fan base as Kondo now commands around the world, not everyone agrees with her methods, especially when she applies them to the bookshelf. “Do NOT listen to Marie Kondo or Konmari in relation to books,” the novelist Anakana Schofield posted to Twitter earlier this month. “Fill your apartment & world with them. I don’t give a shite if you throw out your knickers and Tupperware but the woman is very misguided about BOOKS. Every human needs a v extensive library not clean, boring shelves.” Furthermore, “the notion that books should spark joy is a LUDICROUS one. I have said it a hundred times: Literature does not exist only to comfort and placate us. It should disturb + perturb us. Life is disturbing.”

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles criticizes Kondo’s book policy from a different angle. “I have a single cabinet full of chipped mugs, but I have a house full of books — thousands of books. To take every single book into my hands and test it for sparkiness would take years. And during that time, so many more books will pour in.” That phenomenon will be familiar to readers of Open Culture, since we’ve previously featured tsundoku, a punnish Japanese compound word that means the books that amass unread here and there in one’s home.

Though they might have emerged from the same wider culture, the KonMari method and the concept of tsundoku could hardly be more directly opposed. But now that Schofield, Charles, and many others have voiced their perspectives, the battle lines are drawn: must books spark joy in the moment to earn their keep, or can they be allowed to pile up in the name of potential future usefulness — or at least useful disturbance and perturbation?

Related Content:

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

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

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

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (13)
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  • Bill W. says:

    To be fair, one should have the KonMari-moment when they select, and purchase the book. Otherwise, on the bookshelf it should stay, as one’s books define who they really are.

  • Erin says:

    Tsundoku is not a Japanese philosophy.

  • EB says:

    People have different relationships to their books. I just saw an article on Lifehacker about Kondo’s book philosophy that asserted, with complete confidence, that the books we read define our interests, and the books we keep define how we want others to see us. This was so confusing to me that I read the comments to see if anyone remarked on this and no one did. I rarely if ever have people over to my home unless I already know them quite well and I have never thought of books as a showcase for other people. Surely books are pleasant to have around for yourself: to revisit after you’ve read them (either to reread entirely or to look up something), to remind you what you have read and of different periods in your life, and for the peace of mind in knowing that you always have them on hand whenever you might want them. Even the unread books are great, these days if I want to look up something or read a new book, I hardly ever have to bother going out, I just shop my library.

    All that to say: of course people will have different philosophies about keeping books. If, for instance, you simply want fewer objects in your home, or you see books as ornaments for visitors (though I have to admit my frustration at that—must even this most personal choice be so outward facing in our already social-media-obsessed culture), then of course you’re going to be much more selective about it.

    Still, I don’t see anyone telling people to make sure to whittle down their DVD collections unless each DVD “sparks joy.”

  • Denise says:

    Marie Kondo actually does tell people to whittle down their DVD collection unless each DVD sparks joy.

  • Bradley says:


  • EB says:

    Haha okay you got me!

  • Luciano Tanto says:

    saber leer es saber elegir. los libros que perdemos nos pierden.

  • Steve says:

    Long ago I came to the conclusion that books are meant to be read. Thus, when I’m done with a book I pass it along. Sometimes that’s after I’ve read it and sometimes it’s before!

  • Bryan says:

    I cleaned out my bookshelf once many years ago, I felt so guilty I will never do it again. I have many books now, if I don’t read them all who cares, they bring me much joy just being there.

  • Karl says:

    The point about a book not needing “to spark joy” to be worth of being kept is very valid. For instance, the only time I ever understood the désire to burn a book was after reading The Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks. Of course I didn’t burn it, or even throw it out – it’s an important book to have on my shelf, it changed my life in some ways, and even though I’ll probably never read it again, barely a month goes by that I don’t mention it at least once in conversation.

  • Mari says:

    A library should be eclectic and should reflect the journeys one takes as a reader. Even if the book isn’t a favorite, or hasn’t sparked “joy”, each book leaves its mark. We have over 3K books in our home…some we love and re-read, others we read once and don’t touch again, but…they send us in other directions. I’ve often recommended and allowed others to borrow, books that I’m not “in love with”, but that I know will mean something to the person who borrows it. We have books from before we were married to each other, and they figure in our library because they reflect an experience we had as individuals. Other books we have we have both read with different reactions. Books are doors to other places within ourselves. If you don’t want it, sure, donate it…but don’t let ANYONE tell you what books you should keep or give away just because it fits into THEIR vision of what your life and home should be. That is, quite simply, censorship…

  • Susan da costa says:

    I keep art or photography books because I know I will peruse them over and over. Fiction books I pass on or donate to libraries. I don’t need to see a book I already read, sit on my shelf and collect dust, turn brown and smelly. I cleaned out an entire bookshelf, removed the bookcase and made room for my grandchildren’s toy area! As much as the past may be important to hold on to, the present needs to be embraced!

  • Terceiro says:

    I have taught English at a major (unnamed here) private university for nearly fifteen years. I have many thousands of books on my shelves at home, and hundreds more at my office on campus. And I stand with Kondo. Ditch the garbage books.

    A couple of years ago my wife and I did the whole Kondo method on our bookshelf. We went room by room, and took every damn book off the shelf and put them back, one by one, asking whether each book was worth keeping. I wasn’t too motivated by the “spark joy” rigamarole, but I did ask whether I cared enough about each individual book to let it stay on the shelf. The result: many, many hundreds of books taken to the thrift store.

    Because they were stupid books that served no purpose at my house. I was done with them. And many of them were stupid. Our kids our older now, and we really don’t need full collection of many of the dumb kids books that amassed on our shelves. It was a relief to see them go.

    There are a lot of stupid books in the world. Don’t let them clutter your shelves.

    Books are not sacred artifacts. Paper is not priceless. Do I really need a guide to magazine publishing in 1998? Of course not. Do I need a poorly written book about how Betsy lost her tooth, with creepy illustrations to boot? No: out she goes. Do I need this copy of the DiVinci Code that somehow appears on my shelf? Yikes: once was enough for that excrement. And how did a book explaining THE TRUTH about the DiVinci Code end up in my house in the first place? This one goes in the garbage.

    Read more books. Use the public library. Buy a few. Clear those mold-trap, dust-magnet bookshelves and, I dunno, put up more art on your walls instead.

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