A few things converged recently to get me thinking about physical spaces, in particular the spaces that we spend the most time in. The first is that I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up“, in which a Japanese tidying consultant suggests her method for getting rid of clutter in one’s home. The second was that I purchased a new eReader, and the third was that I had a series of home storage-based issues crop up during an extended period where I was away from work.
David Orban via Creative Commons
The core of Kondo’s approach is to get rid of everything you own that you don’t absolutely love. She has some specific ideas about how one should go about this, but the idea is to drastically decrease one’s possessions so that what remains are things that are, in a manner of speaking, indispensable. Her criteria is that only those things that “spark joy” should be kept. I kind of like this idea, although as some critics have pointed out, it’s pretty tough to describe the feeling one gets for, say, a spatula as anything even in the neighborhood of joy. And yet, throwing out every spatula in the house might not be prudent no matter how much space it might save.
But I get the sentiment at the heart of Kondo’s regimen: all that stuff everyone has “just in case” or because it was a gift or because “what if…” is just crowding the things that are actually valued in our surroundings. The picture she paints of having a sparsely decorated and ornamented living space full of only things that facilitate simple joys is, to me anyway, very compelling.

The section I most dreaded—and I think that’s the appropriate word—was where she discussed the purging of books. I have, admittedly, a reverence and affection for books that is probably indistinguishable from a full-on fetish. I have a hard time passing up bookstores, libraries, rummage sales, for the potential of delicious book acquisition. My tumblr dashboard, just as an example, is an embarrassment of book and reading images.
Kondo suggests that the time to read a book is soon after it is purchased. Initially, this struck me as absurd. But then I started thinking about the books that crowd four large bookshelves in our home, all of which are leftovers from several major title purges in the past five or six years during several moves. If you include board games (another crippling weakness of mine), we have more space devoted to these shelf-dwellers than we do to actual places to sit in our house.
And sure, part of it is that I’m a poor judge of what kind of book I’m going to be in the mood for when I finish whatever I’m currently reading. I have dozens of books I’d love to read, dozens more that—maybe if I’m being perfectly honest—I’d love to say I had read. Each time I read the end of a book, I hunt through these, reading a page or a chapter at a time, trying to stumble onto the one I won’t be able to put down. And maybe I just won’t ever be in the mood to get past page 35 in The Poisonwood Bible; maybe I won’t ever re-read the first three books of Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga so I can remember enough to read Wizard And Glass. Do I keep these books around for that just-in-case moment? It’s hard to say yes, but if I say no…
A few years ago I looked at my CD collection. I had a lot. I love music. But CDs—as a medium—hadn’t been enjoyable to me since sometime in high school. They’re clumsy, they scratch easily (because they’re far more mobile than video discs which usually only stay at home, near a screen), they need to be changed frequently. Digital music was much more my speed and I’d been more or less exclusive with my digital music since my first iPod. And, prior to that, Winamp, iTunes and other PC-based digital music was pretty much my default even before it was a portable reality. So I looked at all those plastic discs and I said, “Gah, forget it.”
I still have a few dozen CDs, somewhere in a closet, in a box labeled, “Stupid Plastic Discs No One Cares About.”
I don’t even really bother managing a digital music library anymore. I subscribe happily to Spotify. I listen to internet radio and audiobooks (digital, downloaded, natch). I find stuff on YouTube if I have to hear something specific right this very second.
And now I’m eyeing the video discs and the bookshelves and thinking, “You know…”
The eReader I bought has a backlight. That was important to me. I rock my one year-old daughter to sleep most nights. It’s a fine opportunity to watch some TV, but I don’t need or want to watch TV every night. I’d rather read, but reading to TV light (oddly tolerated by the child, far more so than any kind of reading lamp) isn’t practical. So I have a reader now with a built-in light. And I noticed that being physically able to read has made me read more.
I have a few dozen books on my reader, plus the ability to purchase or borrow more without having to get up out of the chair. And suddenly I’m rethinking this whole physical book fetish of mine.
Maybe I’m not to the point of parting with all my books. Maybe technology isn’t quite to the spot where I can get rid of all those ever-helpful kid’s movies we have on DVD for rainy days or when my wife and I get sick. But I’m thinking about the concept of a thing sparking joy and I realize it’s not the vessel (mostly). A book is its words, its ideas, its story. If I can have that and not have to re-arrange the hall closet when a repairman comes by to check something in the back, maybe that’s the ideal.