It’s no secret that I am quite fond of books. I like them so much that once, after I had to sell some of them in order to make rent, I wallowed in such a cesspit of self-hatred that my boyfriend went to the store and bought them right back—on credit. Five years ago, I had boxes of them growing mildew at my parents’ house in Ireland. I now have slightly fewer boxes at my parents’ new house in Ireland, but only because I have shipped many of them to Brooklyn, where they promptly perished in an apartment fire.
I first gave KonMari’d my stuff in 2015, right after reading the English translation of Marie Kondo’s first book, but right before the apartment fire (on the plus side, I had less stuff to lose; on the negative, it was stuff that I actually liked). The clothes part was relatively painless, but I’d been looking for ways to justify not book culling in much the same way that I recently tried to justify keeping wine in a Whole30 (I promised I’d do all the other parts with extra enthusiasm). Naturally, I realized that Marie Kondo, like Melissa Hartwig, wasn’t exactly going to be convinced by my arguments, and so I begrudgingly, scoffingly, took all my books off the shelves and did the touching-the-book-covers thing.
The shelves of our Brooklyn-sized apartment were filled with rows of French novels. Many of those rows were invisible, double or triple parked behind the ones visitors could see. Many of them were texts I’d read for the purposes of interrogation during my PhD comprehensive exams (the ones I turned up for only to find a committee member had forgotten to turn up; the ones I was made to reschedule; the ones that resulted in my being this close to quitting the PhD). While I specialized in the 19th Century, our exams were comprehensive—and so was my library. I’d kept them even after I left the academy, listening to the little voice in my head that said “What if…?” What if I’d made a mistake? What if my inclination not to pursue a teaching career was foolhardy? What if I didn’t want my former department to see me as an academic failure any more? (Our director of graduate studies had told us that “anyone who accepted anything less than a tenure-track job” was exactly that.) Maybe I’d need those books one day, goddammit.
And so I touched them. And I had a visceral, negative, virulent reaction to them. These books, and all the years of wasted emotional energy and graduate school abuse and self-doubt they represented, sparked absolutely no joy. They had been lurking in the not-quite visible corners of my consciousness, stacked in their oppressive, unseen rows, taking up space and living rent-free in my apartment (and in my head). Marie Kondo would have wanted me to thank them for their service, but I didn’t so much let them go gracefully as propel boxes of them out the door.
It was shortly after this that I began to read again for myself, borrowing books at first from our two city library systems, curling up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a cat and remembering the small pleasures graduate school had helped me forget. And then I slowly began refilling the shelves with more books: some, I found on the street, others in used book stores; some were recommended by friends, others by Amazon. Together with my partner (he who bought back the books so many years ago), I’m building our own haphazard, illogical library, one to which we are glad to yield space. Maybe one day we’ll even read all the books.