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The bookcase

Four years ago I discovered Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. There was even a Netflix show made about how to use her methods of tidying. Yes, I watched every episode.

Reading her book felt like a fresh breeze blowing through the windows of my life. Something had been missing in my life but I did not know what until I read this book. Reading her book started a journey I could not have predicted. Her core concept involves living in your home only with items or ‘stuff’ that ‘bring you joy.’

Given that a fair stretch of time in my life felt joyless, I was ready to welcome joy once again. Bringing joy back into my life by living in a joy-filled home? I relished the idea. I thought most items in my home brought me joy so it was a matter of removing the excess. Right?  Not so much. How would I know if something brought me joy? According to Marie Kondo, I needed to hold the item and note my emotional response. Did it make me feel good? Or was it a different feeling altogether?

It sounded simple enough. But it was more challenging to apply than I thought. I was out of touch with joy, so it took a while for my internal meter to make itself clear. At the time I lived in a 2-bedroom unit, with plenty of storage cupboards. My home was tidy, yet I could see what she meant about clutter when I scanned my living area. There was enough clutter that a visual scan bumped into stuff; either it was out of place or did not really enhance the area.  So I started in my living room. There were a few ornaments I did not like.  I removed them or relocated them, excited at how easy it was to create a more orderly home.  Already I felt better. I was congratulating myself and taking a deep breath when I looked at my bookcase.

My bookcase was six feet high with five shelves. Each shelf overflowed with books. Most were vertical. Some were horizontal, many more were jammed into the backspace behind the vertical ones. It was an eyesore. The shelves heaved with books on the craft of writing, spirituality, psychology, Greek myths, numerology, Wicca,  crime and journalling. Of course, there were plenty of fiction books too including much-loved stories I read over and again by authors such as Nora Roberts and Matthew Reilly. Other favourites included Eat, Pray, Love, and The Guernsey and Potato Peel Pie Literary Society.

Many books had ‘arrived’ at my bookcase unbidden, most of which were unread.  Generous friends figured their books would find a loving home on my shelves. Gratefully received, it took a while to realise I did not want every book gifted to me.  

It is important to stop for a moment and say how books mean a great deal to me. I still remember my pride in owning my first book at age nine. I treasured that book like some people treasure gold. I spent many happy hours escaping my life engrossed in its pages.  A book of uncanny stories, it whetted my appetite for mysteries. I am in my fifties and mystery is still my favourite genre for television or reading. I especially love murder mysteries, uncanny stories, or documentaries about odd happenings. As a child, I became withdrawn, self-contained as a way of dealing with my harsh environment. Books were my only escape. With books, I lived in different worlds, travelled to other countries. I learned about myths, cultures, anatomy, science, and inventions. I pored over old copies of Reader’s Digest when I lived with a maternal aunt. My aunt would leave them on the coffee table, and it was such a treat to read adult books and learn about a world bigger than me. Does anyone remember those short MM (Mere Male) stories? I learned of Harriet Tubman and her Underground Railroad from those books. Her story seeded a belief in questioning the social norms, something I still do.  In my teens, I graduated to stories and books on the supernatural and the uncanny.

Books are to me what jewels are to dragons. They were, and still are, my special hoard. A full bookcase means I own treasure. Back then I believed a full bookcase clearly demonstrated my intelligence. Hard to be dumb when you read a lot! It meant I was well-read. It meant I was wealthy because books cost money.  No way to have a full or overflowing bookcase without money. Right? Well, almost true. It was only when I considered ‘tidying’ my hoard, that I learned of those unconscious beliefs about books.  

I examined my bookcase with Marie Kondo’s words in my head. Could I tidy without reducing my hoard? Would every book I held bring me a sense of joy? Unlikely. But I was willing to try what she advocated. Her book idealized an ordered home, and I wanted an orderly home. I wanted a home that felt like me, without clutter, and was comfortable to live in. 

The thought of letting go of my books was both exciting and terrifying. My first attempts to declutter this hoard felt invigorating, like a morning swim in July in Melbourne. During my first attempt, I removed several books, but the bookcase was still untidy. It still held so many books I had not read. I say the first attempt because it took several passes at it to create any order. But the most drastic attempt took place after I received an eviction notice. There were few rentals available in my suburb at the time and the home I found for us was much smaller than we were used to. We would have to declutter even more so we could fit into our new home.

I did two more passes at the bookcase. By the time we moved, I had reduced my books enough that they fit onto four of the five shelves.  The remaining books were items I wanted to take to our new home. I took the rest to charity shops and a book exchange.  When we unpacked in our new home, the bookcase became a central piece in our living area. It was neat and tidy and easy to keep clean because there were fewer books.

But today as I write this I am thinking about the next level of decluttering.  We have been here for 2 years now, and more books have slid into place on the shelves. Some are welcome, some are guilt buys. Marie Kondo advocates tidying which is really a smart euphemism for decluttering. Not long after I discovered her book, I learned of a more ruthless approach to decluttering called minimalism. The concept of minimalism is about living with as little ‘stuff’ as possible so that time not spent maintaining ‘stuff’ can be redirected towards pursuits that align with our deeper values, such as connection and community. I guess minimalism is the polar opposite of hoarding. I did not know it at the time, but Marie Kondo’s approach to an orderly home was a doorway into minimalism for me.

But decluttering, like minimalism, is an ongoing process. Day to day living presents multiple opportunities to choose whether to keep or release items: a flyer, a business card, a telephone number, an unwanted gift, a brochure, an email address, a paper or plastic bag, that extra gadget that is only used once or twice a year, etc. 

So, when I say that I am thinking about the next level of decluttering, I am really saying it is time to embrace the concept of living in a joy-filled home on a deeper level. Minimalism may be the key here. Yes, I think it is time to let go of more. More books, more stuff, more beliefs about what makes me who I am …