Why My Books Are Not Clutter

Clutter n: A large amount of things that are not arranged in a neat or orderly way : a crowded or disordered collection of things.

Clutter n: A crowded or confused mass or collection; a mass of disorderly or distracting objects or details.

IMG_1221When it comes to my books, I’ll admit to “large amount, and even to “crowded” — but definitely not to “confused” or “disorderly”. I do find them “distracting” — but isn’t that part of the point of books? My books are organized by subject and in the case of fiction, even alphabetized by author. They are lined up neatly on shelves and stacked on tables. Clutter, to my mind, is the stuff I shove in my laundry room junk drawer — mysterious cords, chargers, and hardware items. I’m also guilty of hanging on to piles of magazines. The homes featured in those very magazines don’t have overflowing baskets of House Beautiful and Veranda in their living rooms. (They also rarely have reading lights next to chairs and sofas, I’ve noticed.)

We’ve recently tried to spruce up our house, recovering furniture, replacing rugs, and adding window treatments. So I’ve been reading a lot of interior design magazines, blogs, and books. I’ve learned that there are some very big no-nos — “brown furniture” (which apparently means antiques made of wood) and “matchy matchy” frequently come up as evils to avoid. The absolute worst sin that amateur decorators can commit is failing to eliminate clutter. Clutter not only causes people to experience stress, it may contribute to obesity — according to professional organizer Peter Walsh, author of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down.

Judging from much of what I’ve been seeing, today’s ideal home looks like an upscale chain hotel, with lots of neutral colors and empty space. (In a large percentage of these homes, the designer adds “personality” by tossing a zebra skin rug over a sisal rug.)

Dominique Browning  (past editor-in-chief of House & Garden) wrote a lovely and insightful article, “Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter”, published in the New York Times a few weeks ago. She laments today’s “propaganda of divestment”, and asks, “Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?” :

It is time to celebrate the gentle art of clutter. We live, and we pick up things along the way: the detritus of adventure; the vessels of mealtimes; the books and music of a life of the mind; the pleasures of our daily romps through the senses . . . And yes, you will have bookshelves. Never enough of them. And more books, to replace all those books you gave away. That, too, is a law of nature.

9781607747307Organizational guru Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, says that “books are one of three things that people find hardest to let go”. Maybe this should tell her something. Why must we feel pressured to let go of things we would like to keep? She says the “true purpose” of books “is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves”. That’s where Kondo and I disagree. Being surrounded by my books (even those that don’t particularly “spark joy”, to use Kondo’s phrase), gives me a sense of comfort and warmth that half-empty, dust-free shelves can’t provide.

Kondo recommends placing bookcases in the closet, leaving “nothing to obstruct the line of vision”.  But books are exactly what I want in my line of vision. Just because I’ll never reread a book, cover to cover, doesn’t mean I don’t want it on my shelf. The familiar gray cover of Bonfire of the Vanities reminds me of stolen hours on the couch while my infant son napped. On the shelf above I see Gorky Park and recall reading it on a lounge chair on my honeymoon. I know without looking that The Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998, because I remember that it was one of my very first purchases with my employee discount at Lake Forest Book Store. I’ll never forget coming home from work and reading it during a power outage, by candlelight, while the children were at school.

Every now and then I reread some of my childhood favorites — most recently, I reread A Wrinkle in Time. The lines I underlined when I was 12 are the same ones I would underline now:

In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet . . . There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter . . . And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet…But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants . . . You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.

I’m glad I have this book on my shelf, even though I may never open it again. I understand a little more about what Madeleine L’Engle has to say about fate and free will than I did when I was 12, and I’m inspired to read her adult books. As our world becomes more digital, I find myself becoming more attached to physical objects that evoke memories — books, of course, but letters and photographs as well. The books I read electronically don’t seem to lodge themselves in my memory as well as the “real” books I read. A few times, I’ve actually bought the physical version of an e-book I’ve read just so I can add it to my collection.

elements-of-style-9781476744872_lgOne book I recently bought that I had already read is Elements of Style: Designing a Home and a Life, by Erin Gates. The photos didn’t show up well in the electronic version (which was a galley, anyway), and it’s a book I’ll stack on my coffee table and refer to again and again. I love that lots of the rooms Gates designs include bookcases that are filled with books, rather than with pottery and knickknacks. She has lots of great decorating tips for the amateur, and plenty of funny anecdotes also.

I’ve amassed piles of design books, including Books Make a Home, Living With Books, and Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature. My house is not “enchanted”, but it’s not cluttered either — it’s just full of books!

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16 thoughts on “Why My Books Are Not Clutter

  1. Hi Ann,

    I so enjoy your posts and reading suggestions. Thank you.
    Please note new email. I don’t want to miss anything.

  2. Awesome Ann! I loved every word. Though unfortunately I have gone past the lovely clutter of books and memorabilia to an all out war on piles of paper I need to get through. Though it is heavenly when I get through the piles and get to either file them or fill a large garbage bag never to be seen again.

  3. Love this piece! When I read Kondo’s suggestion a few months ago that one should get rid of books is the moment I decided I needed nothing to do with her book. Dominique Browning reminds me of how grateful I am to my mother for explaining the value of exquisite possessions and how they are worth buying and keeping. Ok, sometimes i feel that I do have too many books but there are much worse habits and, heck, there is always another extraordinary story or history to buy!
    Always glad to read your thoughts, thank you.

    • Her clothes advice is helpful — probably because I don’t get emotionally attached to clothes. Their purpose is to cover my aging body — sadly, very few of them give me any joy! I just gave away 3 huge bags of clothes I admitted I would probably never fit into. >

  4. Oooh – one more reason why I don’t have any urge whatsoever to read the Kondo book! That statement about bookshelves in the closet would enrage me! I love walking into people’s houses and seeing what’s on their bookshelves…it’s a window into someone’s personality!

  5. Ha, books are definitely not clutter! (Other members of my household might disagree, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one…) And I like having them in my line of vision no matter where I turn. 🙂 Great post, thanks!

  6. Preaching to the choir is right! I have a house full of books, and the other kind of clutter, too. Clearing clutter is a lot like dieting, if you don’t keep it up continually, it (clutter/weight) comes right back! I did just clear out a few cookbooks that I never use, but that’s as far as I’m going right now!

  7. I agree. I have a wall full of books on shelves in our office that I couldnt live without. I dont want to part with them or put them in the closet, yikes! Clutter lady must be mistaken on books.

  8. I LOVED this post. As we have been building a new home for – gulp – 10 years, I am planning lots of shelves and bookspace. One is a built-in right at the end of a hallway!

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