Tiny Rectangles

Some of my tiny rectangles. (And yes, there are others)

Now this is a headline perfectly designed to be click bait for the likes of me:

On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books

But I’m glad I took the bite since Summer Brennan‘s essay was perfect for me: thoughtful, humorous and yes, reassuring.

The fact is that in spite of digital drift, there are lots of us who have a book problem. Some more than others, I grant you, but we are a subgroup, a self-designated tribe, and Brennan is a good spokesperson for our cause.

While many young urbanists around the world have been spellbound by the home decluttering advice of supra-minimalist Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and promulgator of the KonMari Method), the system falls short when it comes to dividing up the books you keep and the books you let go. “Paring down one’s wardrobe is one thing, but what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” is Brennan’s reasonable question.

Brennan describes her own version of the KonMari cleanse with her library, and her conclusions are much more in line with mine than canonical Kondo:

“A book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader comes along,” said the critic George Steiner, and that’s true. The good ones are incantations, summoning spells. They are a spark, a balm, a letter from home. They contain demons, gods in a box. They are tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in. We read books that describe magical portals when really it is the books themselves that are the rabbit hole, the wardrobe, the doorway between worlds. Books, like people, are bigger on the inside…

It’s not true that when you first receive a book is the only right time to read it. Books can stay with you like a talisman on a quest, taken out of your cloak, unwrapped and understood only at your darkest hour: A light to you when all other lights go out.

Brennan’s essay is a loving paean to books, and she differentiates them from other possessions that may clutter our lives and weigh us down. But she also touches into a concern I have had with the hidden side of all this supremacist minimalism that has become so chic:

It’s a useful exercise to clear the cobwebs from one’s bookshelves once in a while, but don’t let anyone talk you into getting rid of your books if you don’t want to, read or unread. Ask yourself whether or not each book sparks joy, and ignore the minimalist proselytizing if it chafes you. After all, the romance of minimalism relies on invisible abundance. The elegantly empty apartment speaks not to genteel poverty, but to the kind of hoarded wealth that makes anything and everything replaceable and available at the click of a mouse. Things and the freedom from things, and then things again if you desire. If you miss a book after getting rid of it, Kondo consoles, you can always buy it again. Dispose and replace, repeat and repeat. Ah, what fleeting luxury.

That’s a great phrase to describe my discomfort with this current version of minimalism—invisible abundance. It speaks to on demand consumerism, with every object just a mouse click away. Thanks, but I’d rather have the stack of “tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in” than elegantly empty.

11 Replies to “Tiny Rectangles”

  1. Well said, and thank you.

  2. When I see a photograph of someone’s book collection, I tilt my head, as if I’m in a bookstore or library, scanning the shelves, finding what the collector is about. Books are wonderful for what they give to us. They are a delight to hold. And it’s reassuring that many of us continue to keep them in our homes.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I do the same thing! Thanks for this James.

  3. George Wi gate says:

    Thanks, Deborah. This essay feeds me in so many ways.
    Books wait till we find them. I have countless books which still feed me, comfort me and light my way. But you have already said this.

  4. Amen! I gave away about 1/4 of my books when I moved. Mostly novels and plays. I miss them. It’s like any long term relationship, you may not necessarily want to pay attention to them right now, but you like to know they are there when you need them. When I sit at my desk or when I am practicing yoga, I often stare at my book shelves, content to just read the titles. Often discovering a book I didn’t remember I had. I pick it up and it’s like a gold mine in my back yard.

    Books are your friends, they are your family. And just like friends and family, books are not meant to be elegantly empty. They are mean to be messy, marked up, smelly–with chocolate stains and coffee rings. Maddeningly alluring at times (Amazon addict in recovery!). Some may need to be socked away in the closet, out of public view. Books are very personal, private luxuries. I still love holding them. Turning a page with my whole hand. With my whole heart.

    I love your stack of books, Deborah. I can’t imagine not seeing them when I visit. I also notice that your tomes have never deterred me from buying you another one.The beauty of a hand held, elegantly full book is that it can be handed over to someone else and received. They are a gift that continues to yield its joy, wisdom, and intrigue indefinitely. And the right one, just like a dear friend, is priceless.:)

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      What a tribute this is. Thank you Cindy!

  5. Thank you, Deborah, for this essay that eloquently articulates why even those of us who believe in and practice simplicity live in homes filled with books.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      We are of a tribe! Thanks Michael.

  6. Oh yes! What pleasure to know where a particular tome is and be able to be with, as with a wise friend. Thank you Deborah!

  7. Yes, I sort of use books as a form of household decorating. Empty walls? Just put up a bookcase and fill it with books. Voila!
    Thanks for the link to the essay–and for your post. 🙂

    1. I what an alluring idea Anne.

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