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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