Tidy is good. Books are better.
We’re in the first month of the New Year, a time when Christmas lists have been replaced by lists of resolutions, both official and unofficial. I guess that’s why I keep wandering back to the gorgeous and quirky book The Liszts by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Júlia Sardà (Penguin Random House). Maybe you know people like the Liszts. (Maybe you are people like the Liszts!) They love making lists: “lists most usual and lists most unusual”.
Just as we are all striving to give the nascent year a better version of ourselves, Netflix has launched a new show on decluttering that has generated some pretty loud controversy, not the least of which from the bibliophiles among us. The show is called “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and in it, the meek Japanese guru and best-selling author dishes out advice on keeping an orderly house. This includes tossing all books that don’t give you joy.
Anakana Schofield at the Guardian vociferated at this advice. “Literature, she wrote, “does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.”
I agree with Schofield. Some of the most important books on my shelves haven’t brought me joy. They upset me (1984), convulsed me (The Handmaid’s Tale) and – sometimes – even changed my way of thinking altogether (Middlesex, The Overstory), but joy is not a descriptor I would use for any of them. Adult literature is more about knowledge, understanding, awareness, communion, provocation and, sure, pleasure too. But how could anyone advocate throwing out books because they don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy?
Things change, however, when it comes to children’s literature.
If children’s books are about anything, I’d argue they are about joy. The joy of stories, the joy of reading, the joy of imagination. The joy of childhood itself. In that, they differ remarkably from adult literature.
So, should we apply Marie Kondo’s tidying-up method to our children’s libraries at least, dumping all books that don’t bring joy?
If a yes or no answer is what you want to wrench out of me, then my answer is no. I tend to believe a child can have too many toys, but never too many books.
I make a conscious effort not to curate my child’s personal library like I would a StoryLab. Prepare to be shocked but, I don’t believe all books that line his shelf need to be high-quality masterpieces. Books that go a little amiss are ok too. The plot may be lame, the pictures less than inspiring, but if he enjoys it for some reason, we keep it. Why? Because you can never fully penetrate someone else’s experience of reading. I try to respect that.
Maybe he loves a book because he knows his friend or grandparent gave him that particular one. (I always put a little note in the overleaf to remind us). Maybe, for him, to read it is to think of them. Maybe he likes the book because it reminds him of a place where he lived or a certain time in his short life. Or maybe he just loves it the way I love eating gourmet food, but I’ll confess to eating a bowl of spaghetti with ketchup on occasion.
And when our children are older and look back on all those books, you know what they’ll see? The hours and hours their parents spent cuddling up and reading to them. The fodder their little brains were given to rush and explore without agenda or excessive scrutiny (because there needs to be time for that too). It is not bad to be selective (which is one of the pillars of StoryLabs, after all), but we need to remind ourselves that each person’s reading experience is a little bit unique and a little bit mysterious.
We need to be more like The Listzts that love their lists (their version of tidiness), but have learned to keep a little space at the bottom… for the unexpected. Tidy is good, books are better.