A few weeks ago, I was facing a weekend with Mark out of town, and I needed to clean out the guest room.
Our house has a tiny fourth bedroom up in the attic; at some point, one of the children will likely use it as sleeping quarters, and ostensibly it is a room for guests. For years it has hosted nothing but out-of-season and recently outgrown clothes waiting to be sorted. When guests come, we sometimes sort them; often we stuff the piles somewhere else, such as in Mark's shop, and then put them back later.
I anticipate guests soon, and I kept going up to the attic, opening the door, looking at the piles (there was literally no floor space), and closing the door again. I needed a kick in the pants.
So I got myself a copy of a book I had heard about some months before, Marie Kondo's The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. And it kicked me. Hard.
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This is not a book review. This is more a report card, on myself. You can find other reviews of the book in many places, including a recent discussion by an economist of why Kondo's method helps us combat certain irrational tendencies that make us hang on to stuff we don't need. It's less about organizing than it is about getting rid of stuff you don't use or love, and then storing what you have.
This is not the first time I've tried to discard belongings, but it's the first time I ever tried the strategy of discarding by category. Usually, I have "cleaned out" my home location by location. Like this:
PROBLEM: I need to put more books in this bookshelf and there's no room
SOLUTION ATTEMPT 1: Try to move some books to space on a a different bookshelf.
SOLUTION ATTEMPT 2: Get rid of just enough books to make room for the moved books.
I must have done this dozens of times since we moved into our house -- "cleaned out" by discarding just enough things in an overfull location to make room for the new things I wanted to put there. I probably managed to get rid of anywhere from three books to maybe one whole box of books at a time this way. For a while I tried to impose on myself a "one book in, one book out" rule, but I never was able to stick to it.
When I stopped discarding books by location, and instead did them by category -- all at once -- I boxed up nine "small" U-Haul boxes of books in the space of two weeks. And without any sense of regret about it. I found nine boxes' worth of books on my shelves that I did not want to keep. They had been hiding in plain sight all that time. Some of them too damaged to use, some of them duplicates, some of them no good, some of them having served their purpose long ago.
The undamaged ones are going on to a garage sale fundraiser this weekend, and may they find new life with someone else.
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The idea is to discard by category, if you have enough books that doing them all at once is impractical. I went through every shelf, bag, box, and bin in my house looking for "pleasure reading" books, both fiction and nonfiction, and piled them on the floor in our game room. The mountain of books was knee high: sci-fi, classics, popular science, poetry anthologies, mysteries, humor, everything that I read because I enjoyed the subject matter. And then I sat on the floor with a donation box to my left and a clear floor space to my right, and sorted.
The criterion is not "Did I enjoy this book?" It is not even really "Will I read this book in the future, or lend it to someone?"
The criterion, as I understood it (this is not exactly how Kondo puts it) is, "Will the sight of this book on the shelf make me feel happy?" Because, of course, that is where our books spend 99% of their time. That is most of what we "do" with books: surround ourselves with them. An individual book should make me happy to be in its presence when it is closed and resting on my shelf. If not -- if it only makes me happy while I am reading it -- then I might as well give it away, and borrow it someday if I wish to read it again. For we don't have to own a book to read it.
Once I understood that, it was not at all hard to discard books. And with all the general-knowledge, pleasure-reading volumes spread out before me, picking them up one at a time, I could easily tell the difference between the books that I met as one meets an old friend, and the books that I didn't.
I passed through other categories: reference books and textbooks; self-help books; children's picture books. I have accumulated a fairly large collection of theology volumes, and it was especially easy to distinguish the "keep" from the "get rid of" there; with theology either you read it once and you've gotten everything you are going to get out of it, or you read it once and you know you'll turn to it again and again.
I departed from Marie Kondo's method in one respect. She says to handle each item only once. But as I went through each category, many books were diverted into a sort of recycle stream to be considered again under a different criterion: Even if I did not desire to keep this book around for me -- did I want this book to be part of my homeschooling library, the set of books that I keep around precisely so there are plenty of different things for the children to read as part of their school days?
I mean, I have never been able to get into Jane Austen. I have picked up and put down Emma and Pride and Prejudice countless times. I am probably never going to read either. They do not spark joy sitting on the shelf (rather, when I see them I am reminded of my failure to finish them). At least not for my own sake.
But -- as part of a library of volumes that I want to be available in my home for the readers who live there and visit there -- I am happy to see them waiting for the right person to come along and pick them up. So they stayed.
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There is a lot more space in my shelves now. I will be moving on to the next category -- papers -- starting today, at the same time as I put the old school year to bed and begin buying materials for the new one. It is good timing, and it feels like a fresh start, just in time for summer.