Tidying Up as Spiritual Practice Part 2: Books, Intuition, and Letting Go

I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember. My mom sometimes tells the story about the time she and my dad brought my newborn sister home from the hospital. I was three years old. My parents had concerns about me being jealous, and had read in a parenting book that the father should carry the new baby in so the mother can greet the older child (or children) with open arms. My aunt was in the middle of reading to me when my parents arrived home with the baby. My mom was prepared to embrace me. Instead, when they walked in the door, I barely looked up. I said to them, “Just a minute, I’d like to finish this book.” Clearly, the passion had already started to take hold. 

About 33% of the way done. (I lost the photo of the before picture when I unexpectedly had to wipe my phone.)

About 33% of the way done. (I lost the photo of the before picture when I unexpectedly had to wipe my phone.)

My mom is a librarian. She and my dad started reading to me the day they brough me home from the hospital. My sister and I could always expect a stack of nice new books at Christmas and on our birthdays. I started writing poetry when I was twelve years old. I got a B.A. and M.A. in English literature, and an M.F.A. in creative writing. Even though I no longer had most of my childhood books, and even with the occasional culling of my library whenever I moved apartments, by the time I turned 35 I had amassed a huge collection… and most of it was in the to-be-read pile. When I started Marie Kondo’s tidying up process this year, I estimated that 2/3 of my books had never been read. I had an entire cedar chest in my closet filled to the lid with untouched books, a large bin of books next to my bed, and a pile on top of that bin almost as tall as me.  

Tidying up my clothes was relatively easy. I’ve never had the same attachment to clothes that I’ve had to books. I spent nearly two hours digging up all my books and placing them in piles in my living room floor, dreading the inevitable process of sorting through them. I had to accept that, if I was going to take this seriously, I was probably going to give away a lot of unread books. At first, I felt anxious. I had some serious FOMO going on. But as I stacked the books in piles that came up to my hips, I realized that many of these unread books had been sitting tucked away for four or five years. What was the point of holding onto these books when I clearly showed no evidence of reading them? If I hadn’t made reading them a priority yet, would I ever get around to them? How could something spark joy just sitting in a crate? And what was the point of keeping books that were never going to fulfill their purpose, which was to be read? Better to let them go into the homes and libraries of people who would actually enjoy them.

A point of clarity: there has been a lot of hubbub on the internet about Marie Kondo ostensibly telling people they should limit their personal libraries to only 30 books. That’s not entirely true. Kondo says 30 books is what turned out to be the right number for her. While she does clearly skew toward minimalism, she also recognizes that some people will be their happiest surrounded by many books. She elaborates on this point more in Spark Joy, her follow-up book. I haven’t counted the number of books I have left after the tidying process, but it’s definitely more than 30. It’s not the hard number that matters; it’s that you’re comfortable with your personal library.

I spent eight days tidying up my book collection, investing 1-3 hours a day in the process. Marie Kondo recommends doing every category in one fell swoop, but I had so many books, her advice just wasn’t realistic. Still, I think breaking the process up into chunks actually helped me. Trying to go through all my books at once would have been exhausting, and ultimately, I probably wouldn’t have made the best decisions. Being able to return to the project fresh each day helped me approach my books with fresh eyes.

I applied the process of determining what sparked joy, I had the opportunity to reflect on what that meant for me. On some level, the spark of joy can’t be explained rationally; on some level, it’s intuitive. But many of us in this world have been cut off from our intuition as the result of contemporary life. Some of us have work we need to do in order to be able to access our intuitive selves. The tidying process is one that has helped me with that. Tidying books has been particularly effective. The more I dove into the process, the easier it was for me to let my instincts come forward to help me decide.    

The books that stayed.

The books that stayed.

One of the things I’ve learned from this process is how to be less judgmental of what people choose to have in their homes. My boyfriend’s house isn’t messy, but it’s definitely full. All of his walls have beautiful art. Every table and dresser has some sort of decorative object. He has collections of masks, musical instruments, seashells, and music from his travels. He has three whole walls filled floor-to-ceiling with books; he has another shelf that’s floor-to-ceiling with records. I’ve often teased him about how much stuff he has. But as I’ve gone through the work of tidying up my own space, I’ve been able to see his home from a new perspective. It’s not the way I would choose to decorate. But I’ve started to see how having an office full of books and records really does bring him joy. I’ve started to understand how much he values each and every object on his coffee table and his desk. I’ve come to appreciate the effort he’s made to organize his art collection just so. We’re never going to share the same interior aesthetic. But I can still see how his home brings him joy. Far be it for me to tease him about what makes him happy.

As of this writing, summer travel and reentry have interrupted my tidying process. The project remains unfinished, but I plan to continue it this week, and continue updating as I go.