The Joy of Bookshelves—Marie Kondo and Your Library

Tim Thornborough | February 25th 2019

Why do you keep books on your shelf?

It’s a question that has been brought into sharp focus by the decluttering craze that is sweeping the world, led by the diminutive Japanese style guru Marie Kondo.

Marie has been misquoted as saying that everyone should only have 30 books at any one time. But that is her practice only, but I suspect influenced by our ability to reference or read most things electronically, and a cultural disposition to minimalism. Other cultures find more virtue in crowded chaos and glorious muddle. As one commentator to the Kondo phenomenon said: “We’re not after sparks of joy, we want to swim in wonder”.

Marie’s message and method is one that is simple to grasp: if something does not spark joy within you—why do you hang onto it? If you’re reading this blog on the website from a Christian publisher, it’s a good bet that you love books. So it’s a better bet that the inside of your home shares these features with mine: Bookshelves crammed with books lining the walls in more than one room and a stack of books by your bedside waiting patiently for you to turn your attention to them.

So why do we hang onto them when there is little chance that we will ever re-read them? The answer, it turns out is quite complicated.

  • They are very occasionally useful: cookbooks, reference books, books on art. They may remain unopened for years, but when I am looking for inspiration for cooking, or have an idle moment, or want to settle an argument or illustrate my erudition to someone, out they come and the crusted pages are teased gently apart to reveal their store of treasures.
  • I might re-read them: some books had such a profound impact on me that I keep them there on the off-chance. I have a line of Master and Commander books by Patrick O’Brien that absorbed my imagination for a couple of years as I worked through the 21-volume series. A friend once described these books as “crack-cocaine for intellectuals”. I am a recovering addict.
  • Virtue (or vice) signalling: One of the first things I do when I enter another’s house is take in their bookshelves. It’s a good starting point, and a way of getting into what someone is like—their tastes, their interests, their passions. And they become sparks for discussing not just literature, but life, loves and who we are.
  • I might lend them: I try to be generous with my books — when I read a book that teaches me something profound—I want to share it. Recent examples for me have been Hans Roslings Factfulness and Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. There will also be a couple of Christian books in this category—A Fresh Start by John Chapman was my evangelistic book of giving for many years; I’m still searching for a worthy replacement.
  • They represent a memory for me: I have a row of Biggles books on one shelf, that transport me to a time when I was an eager 12-year old enraptured by the thought of flying and space travel. They are dated and simplistic now and awkwardly non-PC), but I only need to catch sight of one to get a smile on my face.
  • I might (one day) read them to a younger generation: Books are not just personal cultural objects, they are things to pass on, both physically by giving, but also experientially and relationally by reading and talking about with others. And if you are reading this my beautiful daughters Jenny, Maggie and Lizzie — no pressure.

A clear-out will come at some point, but I suspect that I will find joy, or anticipate future joy, in far more than 30 books.

What other reason do you keep books on your shelves? 

Tim Thornborough

Tim Thornborough is the founder and Publishing Director of The Good Book Company. He is series editor of Explore Bible-reading notes and has contributed to many books published by The Good Book Company and others. He is married to Kathy and has three adult daughters.