It’s been a busy week in the life, but I’ve managed two things relevant to book bloggery. The first is that I should be done book 95 by the time this posts (The Things They Carried, if you’re curious). That one’s a good milestone because I’ve decided to a) try to get to 125 books before the year is out, b) try not to read all of November so that I can focus on Nanowrimo, which I will do while cringing at my own novel-writing.
The second is that I dumped out all of my books on my floor and started peeling away some of the collection, KonMari style. I thought I’d talk a bit about my learning curve so far, and some of the books that immediately went into a bin (I’ve set aside about 80 to sell/donate so far).
First, let’s talk about some of the easiest books to get rid of, like:
- Classics. Not all classics (I’ve never understood how this broad term even really works), but the classics I kept owning but had no interest in reading (The Grapes of Wrath), or read but didn’t particularly like (The Great Gatsby), or read and liked okay but clearly didn’t find memorable (North and South). I previously kept these out of guilt, but screw it. One of the most valuable things I’ve read in a book decluttering post is that we shouldn’t let our bookcases lie about who we are. I straight-up like The Sound and the Fury. I do not straight-up like Crime and Punishment. (Mostly because the ending is bullshit.)
- Anthologies. Every once in a while these are so well-curated that they’re worth keeping, but generally I find if there are fewer pieces in the collection I want to read, there’s going to be a more joy-sparking way to read them. I remember being excited one year that we were set the Norton Shakespeare volumes as our textbooks, but since I don’t actually like every Shakespeare play (nor reading them in a huge book with small print), I now prefer something like the Arden volumes. (No shade to the commentary in those anthologies, though, since the introductions to each play are pretty good.) Also, a lot of popular pieces that turn up in poetry/short story anthologies are available somewhere online, so.
- Free books. I’ve received a lot of these working in publishing and academia. There are definitely a few gems, but a lot of these I took because they sounded interesting or had a neat cover design. Very few, upon reflection, actually excite me enough that I want to add them to my infinite reading queue. Also, it’s difficult to list examples because it’s unlikely anyone will even know these (usually cast-off) books.
- The first of a trilogy that turns out disappointing. I’ve learned my lesson this year: I buy the first book of a trilogy in paperback and then I try the second one digitally. I find it’s very common for a trilogy to not live up to the premise and promise of its first book, and some sequels become so repetitive and static or messy and annoyingly-ended that keeping the first book is an exercise in futility. Goodbye, The Selection; so long, Half Bad.
- Books that are just not good. This is self-explanatory, but maybe why I still had books that aren’t good is less obvious. When I was a teen, I was sure I was going to write the next big contemporary supernatural fantasy novel; my 2004 Nanowrimo was absolutely proto-Twilight. (The vampires didn’t sparkle, but they could go out in the day; they were more like the lamia in Nightworld. And there were elemental mages. What a groundbreaker I was.) So at that time, I collected anything that was a modern-day supernatural fantasy story, including stuff that was pretty bad (I was convinced I could learn from it). One that I’ve hung onto is called Blood and Chocolate, and while it is generally messy, it turns a major trope on its head (spoilers, although this happens about halfway through and is why the narrative has no stakes): instead of clinging to humanity through love for a human, the protagonist realizes she can have a better life if she embraces her supernatural nature. It’s a cool direction to go in, but so poorly executed, and I think it’s good enough that I’ve learned from it (and all the other books of its ilk I still had lying around).
Those have been the easy discards so far, but that said, I think part of the process that Marie Kondo doesn’t elaborate on is that you’ll have to define what “joy” is for yourself while you’re working through your stuff. Admittedly, that’s probably why she tells you to do clothing first: it’s easier to think of it in terms of its feel, its fit, and the memories it holds. If you do that first, I imagine tackling your books and other media will come to you more naturally; you’ll already have transcended thinking about the object in terms of its primary function (e.g., work pants).
It’s harder to start with books and to try to set aside their primary function as texts, but thinking of them as texts creates two issues. The first is that it’s difficult to discard texts with absolutely any value if you’re a writer/(former) scholar. What if I need to come back to this idea/style for inspiration? What if I want to reference that someday? (Kondo would say that it’s enough that you’ve learned something from it, and you can always pick it up again if you really need it—but I think this anxiety is particularly strong in people who are used to picking up books as work and using some books that can be harder to find.)
The second issue is that it’s easier to see the value in them in texts of their words, rather than the way they make you feel as objects, and there are some books that you can feel strongly about without being that attached to the words in them.
So there are a couple of ways I’ve been expanding my idea of what “sparks joy” other than the actual words in the book.
The first is books I’ve extensively studied. I went on a kick in grad school of analyzing the Twilight series—not because I like the books, but more because of what I felt they meant in a broader context. I was both vaguely concerned about how they might reflect a post-feminist backlash socially and also wanted to “redeem” modern supernatural fantasy to some extent through comparison to other texts, but also I just felt sorry for Bella for going back to an abusive boyfriend and having a shitty support system. While studying the books just made me more upset about the writing, I also think fondly of all the conferences I did and papers I wrote, so the objects relate to happy times as an academic. There’s also Frankenstein, which I’ve never really liked, but I’ve been forced to study/teach it so many times over the years that I feel a sense of camaraderie with it. (It’s interesting, it just happens to have a lot of overwrought description and an unlikable protagonist with very few alternative characters to latch on to, which are turn-offs for me.) I will likely discard my copy in any case, because it’s not a particularly nice edition, but I could see myself picking up the book again as a kind of old friend.
The second expansion is also work-related, but in terms of editing/publishing stuff. I’ve worked on a fair number of books through my career, and while not all of them spark joy in terms of the text itself, the accomplishment of having my name credited and the nostalgia of looking back on those parts of my life is a happy thing. Whether I can distill that feeling into certain landmarks among them rather than keeping them all is another question, but I think letting them fit an idea of joy is okay with me for now.
I know there are going to be a lot of harder decisions from here on in; I’ve already stacked up the super easy picks for me (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, A Song of Ice and Fire, Kushiel’s Dart, Naamah’s Kiss, etc.) back on the shelves, and figuring out what’s joyful other than the stuff I’ve reread (or want to reread) a billion times is tough. But I like that I’m honing my decision-making skills and getting a better sense of how my bookshelf can tell the truth about me, so I’ll keep muddling through it over the long weekend. (And hey, after this, getting rid of some clothes should be a snap.)
See you next week!