There is a serious problem with the backlash against Marie Kondo

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Everyone who says she’s telling people they have to throw away books is completely missing the point.

Tidying Up With Marie Kondo has sparked mostly joy with Netflix users since it launched on the streaming service earlier this month.

Secondhand stores like Beacon’s Closet in New York have been overwhelmed with donations of unwanted clothes, there’s been a run on containers and storage boxes for those looking to declutter and city streets are littered with possessions that no longer serve purpose in their owner’s lives and are currently awaiting garbage collection. 

But there’s one aspect of the reality series that has sparked ire with viewers, and that’s the Japanese tidying guru’s advice when it comes to books. Episode five of the first season sees Kondo visit the Los Angeles home of Matt and Frank, two writers who need Kondo’s KonMari method help in streamlining their lives and, in particular, their bookshelves. 

Kondo asks the couple to take out all their books, pile them up on the living room floor, and hold each one in their hands to see if it sparks joy. Frank begins editing down his collection but Matt surveys the titles with dismay.

“Is this difficult for you, going through the books?” Kondo asks him kindly. “I assume you always loved to read.”

Matt shares the story of his childhood love of reading, and in particular, To Kill a Mockingbird. Kondo asks him to take his copy in his hands to see what she means about a book sparking joy. Matt does and feels an “immediate” connection to the title. “Books like that are very useful for you, because that’s the spark of joy that you should be feeling,” Kondo explains, as Matt begins to sort through his titles.

“Ask this question to yourself,” Kondo says in the episode. “By having these books, will it be beneficial to your life going forward?” 

Kondo with Frank and Matt

So far, so sensible. But it’s this exact moment in the series that has book fans rioting in the streets. An image of Kondo saying that people should ideally own no more than 30 books began to be widely circulated, and the internet clutched its book-loving pearls. Twitter users called Kondo “a monster” and implored others to “NOT listen to Marie Kondo or KonMari in relation to books.” “Keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off my book piles, Marie Kondo,” wrote the book critic for The Washington Post.

What those criticising Kondo are arguing is twofold. Firstly, that a well-stocked library is essential to life as a human being and secondly, that books don’t necessarily need to spark joy in order for them to serve a purpose. Books can be conversation-starters, discourse-shapers, comfort-bringers, sadness-soothers and argument-provokers. Or they can just be something nice that you like to read. 

There are valid points in the argument, but the backlash to Marie Kondo completely misunderstands what she is talking about when she talks about tidying up. The KonMari method isn’t the process of merely chucking stuff out and calling it a day. The method calls for a reevaluation of the way you interact with your possessions: of understanding why you have things and what those things bring to your life.

That’s where the sparking joy comes into it. It’s not merely a neat little tagline currently doing the rounds in Meme-stonia. (My favourite is the one about Kondo as our supreme overlord, deciding the fate of men on the basis of whether or not they spark joy.) It’s an essential component of the method that encapsulates what Kondo is trying to achieve with each person who uses her method. 

This isn’t about tidying for tidying’s sake. It’s about reducing mindless consumerism and learning to love the things in your life. The goal, as one Twitter thread explained, isn’t necessarily to reduce the number of things you own. It’s to make sure that everything you own is of importance to you. That’s an important distinction. 

But there’s a dark subtext of elitism to the way Kondo’s comments on books has struck a nerve. Somehow, owning masses and masses of books has become a stand-in for intelligence and anyone who doesn’t own many books is, therefore, an unintelligent person. Regardless of the fact that books are expensive, that having the space to store all those tomes is a privilege, that it’s possible to be a big reader but own no actual tomes courtesy of ebooks, audiobooks and the library.

“I don’t know what the rationale is for the backlash, but I do know that it comes from a place of privilege,” author Ellen Oh, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, told Bustle. “Elitism in that if you don’t have lots of books you can’t possibly be very smart. And financial classism because I remember being young and poor and owning less than ten books. It was why the library was my sanctuary.” 

Kondo herself owns 30 books. She’s not suggesting that this is the number that you have to have. 

I left all my books back in Sydney when I moved to London last year, so I probably have less than 30 books in my apartment right now. I have friends who have 300 books, happily. I know others who own 3000 books unhappily. It is the constant bane of my mother’s existence that my father refuses to declutter their bookshelves. (Sorry mum, for adding all my books to your life. I am certain that my battered Curtis Sittenfelds are not sparking joy for you.)

“The point of the KonMari method is to figure out what you value most,” Kondo said, via translator, about the books controversy. As Apartment Therapy reported: “If your response to getting rid of books is anger, she said, then you ‘must’ keep them, even if someone like her suggests you get rid of them. That’s a sign they ‘spark joy’ and you can ‘keep it with confidence’.” 

No one is forcing anyone to follow the KonMari method, not in the least Kondo herself. She’s not going to barge down your door and force you to burn your book collection until you edit down to just 30 titles. If you find something that works for you in the KonMari method, try it. If you don’t agree with what she’s saying, then ignore it.

“The point of this process isn’t to force yourself to eliminate things,” says Kondo in the season finale of her show. “It’s really to confirm how you feel about each and every item that you possess.”

If that looks like stacked bookshelves and towers of tomes to you, then great. But if it doesn’t, then that doesn’t make you a bad, or unintelligent person. 

And if you have a problem with that then it might say more about you then it does about her.

Images: Netflix


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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