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Book lovers, relax: Marie Kondo is not coming for your books

Keep your books if they spark joy for you! It’s fine!

Marie Kondo looks joyfully around a client’s kitchen Denise Crew/Netflix
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

As this year of Marie Kondo kicks off, with Tidying Up With Marie Kondo buzzing across Netflix and think piece after think piece on Kondo and her tidying methodology blasting through the internet, a curious criticism of Kondo has emerged and proved its staying power. It goes like this: Marie Kondo hates books. She wants you to get rid of all of yours. Right now.

To be clear, Marie Kondo never says she hates books. But the narrative has stuck around, in part because of a popular Twitter meme that shows Kondo sitting on a couch and a speech bubble coming out of her mouth that says, “Ideally, keep less than 30 books.” It was originally created by Rev. Jeremy Smith as a joke about the clergy’s book-hoarding ways (he says he uses the KonMari method and that his post “wasn’t intended as a slam on Kondo at all”), but it took off when the writer Jennifer Wright shared a version with the clerical references removed. “This woman is a monster,” she captioned it. (Wright has since deleted the post and apologized for it.)

The idea that Kondo wants you to get rid of your books has also shown up in essays about the show by book lovers, who object to the idea that they should only keep books that make them joyful. “I can’t imagine what a blank collection of physical books I’d be left with if they had to spark joy,” wrote Anakana Schofield at the Guardian, adding, “Goodbye Jelinek, Bernhard and Kafka, hello books with photos of hippo feet.”

“We’re not after sparks of joy,” wrote Ron Charles at the Washington Post of his family’s book collection: “we want to swim in wonder.”

So does Marie Kondo say that you should never have more than 30 books? Does she say that you should only keep books that make you blandly, flatly happy? In a word: no.

The 30-book figure does have some basis in Kondo’s words, but it’s not prescriptive advice. Here’s what she writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: “I now keep my collection of books to about thirty volumes at any one time.” But that does not mean she thinks you should have only 30 books. That number is just what works for her.

Kondo does suggest that your books will probably spark more joy if you get rid of the ones you have always vaguely planned to read or reread and probably never will. She also sincerely doubts that you will ever reread any of your books. “Let’s face it,” she writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and puts the next sentence in bold type: “In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again.”

But all of Kondo’s advice comes with the caveat that if something sparks joy for you, then you should by all means keep it. “Only you know can know what kind of environment makes you feel happy,” she explains. “The act of picking up and choosing objects is extremely personal.” In other words, if a book-rich environment makes you happy, then you should by all means hold on to your books.

Kondo says you should only keep what makes you happy. But that rule is complicated.

The question of whether Kondo’s “joy sparking” criteria is too limited, as Schofield and Charles argue, is more complicated. It’s true that Kondo uses the phrase “spark joy” again and again, both in her book and on her TV show, and that she writes, “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy.” But that does not necessarily mean that she wants you to limit your book collection to cute animal picture anthologies and throw out anything that inspires more complicated feelings.

It would be truer to the spirit of Kondo’s advice to think of the question, “Does this spark joy?” as another way of saying, “Does this hold value for me?” By focusing on joy, Kondo helps filter away the feelings of guilt and shame that often cling to our objects — I spent money on this, so I have to keep it even though I don’t like it; this was a gift, so I have to keep it even though I never use it; I meant to use this and never did, so I have to keep it in case someday I do want to use it — but that doesn’t mean that she makes no place in her method for feelings outside of sheer unbridled glee.

Kondo just wants you to only keep things that you actively want to keep, things that bring something to your life besides a vague sense of guilt that you haven’t gotten around to dealing with this thing yet. So if you value books that disturb or unsettle you, books that make you sad or angry, books that don’t precisely make you happy but do open your mind — then those books certainly have earned their place in your life under the KonMari method.

They just need to be books that serve a function in your life that you value, that bring you something besides guilt — something that, for lack of a better word, we might call joy.