Feng Shui for Book Lovers: How to Pare Down a Library

Where's Dash? My kids seem to tolerate mess more than I do these days.

Where’s Dash? My kids seem to tolerate mess more than I do these days.

HouseLast month I decided once and for all that I was going to either get rid of some books or embrace what my life was becoming: a Grey Gardens kind of gorgeous.

As a writer, I had long taken solace in studies linking messiness to creativity. Oh the ways old magazines, paper clips, half-open books, unanswered mail and yesterday morning’s cereal bowl must be sparking fireworks in my brain! But with three other people in the house, and overflowing bookshelves set to topple, the center could no longer hold. All I yearned for was an empty room, maybe some curtains billowing from a sun-drenched window. Faced with this impossibility, I found myself, over the past several weeks, becoming one of those people who can’t stop talking about feng shui.

You know feng shui. The ancient Chinese art of balancing energy in spaces. The only way you might convince a husband to buy a bed with a tufted headboard. The theory behind what every family learns eventually: Hell is other peoples’ stuff. This was not the first time I welcomed the inexplicable power of space and energy into my life.

I first latched onto the ideas of feng shui a year before when it struck me that I had three different kinds of cinnamon in my cupboard and six different salts. I was experiencing what Germans call die Qual der Wahl (the torture of choices). A friend of mine had pressed a copy of Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui: Free Yourself from Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Clutter Forever into my hand and I ended up removing at least two thirds of the items from my kitchen, which is apparently in the love center of my feng shui Bagua. Don’t ask me what this psycho juju actually means. All I know is that by clearing clutter, you make room for new energy to flow into your home. It must have worked, for within a week of decluttering the kitchen, I became a mom to a Finnish exchange student.

But the books were a different kind of trouble. To a writer, books aren’t objects or clutter – they are life blood. My lined shelves were a living diary of my reading life. I wasn’t sure how I was even going to remember what I had read, if I could be a writer without a house filled with physical books. The judgy houseguest in me tsk tsked. How could anyone get an image of who I am if they didn’t judge me by my books? And more importantly, how could I?

Naturally my first attempt at applying feng shui to the library yielded space for perhaps four more hardbacks, which I promptly filled up – and then some – over the next twelve months. But just a year later these shelves were filled to overflowing and I had found myself with a new problem. I was trying to write my first book. I was three chapters in, and I had started to believe that my packed library had taken on metaphorical meaning. There was no room on my shelves for anything new, no room in the world for this very weird idea I had to write a memoir through the lens of scent.

Then came Marie Kondo, Japan’s reigning tidiness expert, whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing already has 73 holds at my small-town Oregon library. She is everywhere these days, with her bright-eyed, doll face and nothing out of place, encouraging people to surround themselves only with objects that bring them joy. I adore her for one reason: She is a poster child for how to make your own particular mental illness into a business model. Her major feat for our culture is in finding a way to turn her OCD (I’m diagnosing here) come across as this lovely, embraceable lifestyle choice for you and, let’s hope, the people around you. Marie – I feel like I can call her Marie, we’re that close now – declutters by category, not by room. For books, she advises that you pull every volume out of a shelf in order to let it breathe and put them all on the floor.

So that’s what I did. For my second book-clearing feat, I removed every book from every bookshelf and sat there despondent in a pile of paper. I cried in this heap of books. Then I was tired, so I napped. But then, the real task: Hold each book in my hands and ask myself: Does this spark joy?

Do not open the book. Do not read the book. You ask the question and you build your discard piles accordingly.

Friends: I got rid of five sixths of my books. But what really slayed me wasn’t the number of books I was carrying in bags to Goodwill the next day. In harnessing the sense of joy I associated with the books I kept I was able to figure a couple of things out. For one, in the discarding, I found my chosen writing tribe – the writers I long to share a shelf with as opposed to the writers who I thought I should have read. Two: I made some peace with the realities of author longevity and the idea that not everything you write will hit (chucked one Franzen essay collection but kept the other). But the most revealing thing I discovered was that I had, without being aware of it, kept every memoir I had ever bought, as if this joyful connection were forged through genre alone.

The Books I Kept: My row of favorite memoir and personal writing, staring back at me, cheering me on.

The Books I Kept: My row of favorite memoir and personal writing, staring back at me, cheering me on.

Gone the useless thesauruses, away with The Elementary Particles! Goodbye to every Tom Robbins novel except Jitterbug Perfume! Sayonara to six hand-bound leather journals, each of which had only three pages hand-scrawled in them! Au revoir Jane Eyre! The purge was a clinic on my own processes, a chance to really understand who my influences were and what kind of distasteful writerly arrogance I was ready to put in the past. Did I really need two copies of T.C. Boyles Drop City? (No, just the signed one).

Marie says you must hold the book in your hand and you thank it for the role it played in your life, and then you Let It Go (cue the music). This wasn’t always easy. What yawner was I going to keep for when insomnia gripped me? (Moby Dick). And which one did I thank for putting me to sleep so often but bid a fond farewell to? (Sebald’s Campo Santo (Modern Library Paperbacks)). As two days wore on, I found myself retreating from another of my long-held beliefs – that I was somehow responsible for the books my children would encounter in the world. I was left with the conviction that if these books had found me, surely the universe would make sure that my children would find the ones they needed at the right point in their lives, too. Besides, if my mom could never interest me in the poems of Rod McKuen (Listen to the Warm, anyone?) by presence alone, surely my collection of German-language expressionist classics might find welcome elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in true before/after fashion, and much to my deep relief, the writing is going great. It is flying out of my head and through my fingers. I keep waiting for that moment of regret when I look up at the shelves with despair, when I know for sure that I trashed my treasure in some kind of misplaced spring cleaning mania, but it’s not like that at all. It’s more like seeing the bleachers from the field – a crowd cheering me on.

Want to read more? Follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or you can read some of my writing at www.emilygrosvenor.com.

117 thoughts on “Feng Shui for Book Lovers: How to Pare Down a Library

  1. spicyclaire (@aromatum_blog) says:

    Hey Emily – love this! I used Marie Kondo’s method too, and must have donated 250 books to Goodwill. Putting my joy-sparking books BACK on the shelves was so exhilarating. And there’s so much less dust in my house. Glad it got your words flowing. Now I have to go use Marie’s method on my spice shelves…ha!

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Foy says:

    I’ve often thought we have very good book security in The States. Any book I want is a couple clicks away. I also made friends with my librarian and she will get me what ever peaks my interest. Just think of all your books let out into the ether finding there way to new homes. If we were all so diligent about letting go of the things we have and do not use, there would be little need for storage units!

    Liked by 6 people

  3. jimkraft1526 says:

    A common conundrum for writers and avid readers, But you’re doing the right thing. You realized that you were never going to open most of those books again, and your children probably won’t open them either. They won’t want a lot of your “stuff”; they’ll collect enough of their own. I think a part of holding on to books is vanity. “Look how much I’ve read! Look what I’ve accomplished! I must be wonderfully literate!” There’s no prize for that, unfortunately. No, keep the ones you use or love and set the others free, where other readers can discover them. You can always buy more.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. triciatierney says:

    Have you tackled your drawers yet? I did the season clothes switch and got rid of bags and bags of clothing. And my drawers I like neatly stacked, colorful envelopes.
    I confess I haven’t done the books yet… I haven’t even read the chapter. But your lovely post inspires me to.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Susan says:

    Oh thank you, thank you! I needed to read this today. I have been trying to cut down my book collection before moving to Australia and so far I’ve cut it to half but need to halve it again and I’ve found it so hard. You’ve shown me the way forward from here. I will certainly look up Marie Kondo as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. saggioantico says:

    I’ve read Marie too. I applied her suggestions but the books were the only exceptions. I decided to take a week only for reading the unread novels in my shelves. I have discovered good books this way… For organizing spaces my favourite one is always David Allen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Grosvenor says:

      I have a great need to discard my former selves, and though I have been a book hoarder all my life, I have learned there is no need for most of them in my personal space. If I had an outside office I might keep every one that I could press it into a student’s hand.


  7. ustemirov says:

    Reading book is a good spending of time.. But in our country now kids do not read them.. They want to spent their time in social networks and internet.
    P.s. hello guys from Kazakhstan, and sorry for my terrible english 😊😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

  8. LifeLoofah says:

    I suspect I should pare down our collection of books, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I love the sight of bookshelves filled to the brim, and when I’m in need there’s a nice selection!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. renezmairude says:

    Wow! Thanks for the ideas. My bedroom has turned itself into a kind of bookshelf. I ran out of room on the actual shelf so I started stacking them on my beds head board and my windowsill. I just never have had the heart to get rid of any before. I think I’ll give it a try now though.


  10. shazzameena says:

    Last year, in a period of transition and uncertainty, I purged my bookshelf (and kitchen, linen cupboard and CD collection!). I managed to get the books I loved and wanted to keep down to 30 books. It felt great! I am yet to regret it. I have also discovered a new love of my local library 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. aiharun says:

    Reblogged this on Fragrance in My Garden and commented:
    There are too many books in this house. The bookshelves in the library are cluttered. There are bookshelves in my bedroom, my daughter’s room and the living room too. I need to give these books away. Old textbooks should just be sent to the recycling paper place.


  12. penonpapergirl says:

    thank you for this… I found this very helpful, because i have a very hard time letting go of books. I liked the “don’t read thwm” part!!


  13. iemergedinlondonrain says:

    What a small world we live in! I live in Salem, Oregon, and work at the Library there. My husband is desperate for me to scale down my bookshelves, but I’ve done it so many times now that I can’t imagine getting rid of more. But, I’m out of shelf space, and everytime I see how little room for growth is left, I get this constricted feeling in my chest.

    My suggested cure?

    It’s time to buy a house.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. maire says:

    Great post! I donated three boxes of books last week. It helped that none of them were mine, I was helping my mum, but nothing beats a good decluttering session!


  15. rtfreeman says:

    Marie Kondo is, indeed, adorable. I read the entire book in one sitting and I am just astounded at what does NOT spark joy in my life (and at age 60, that’s a lot.) My favorite line in the whole book is the one that goes something like this: “Storage experts are secret hoarders.” (this is a glee-filled paraphrasing. I gave the book to my local public library, which sparked joy on both sides of the exchange.)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Matt Boucher says:

    Thanks for the wonderful blog; I really enjoyed reading it! I was on a Karen Kingston/clutter clearing kick for quite some time, but had resigned myself to hoarding books. I LOVE that suggestion, though, of holding each book in your hand and asking, “does this bring me joy?” WITHOUT opening or reading it.


    • Emily Grosvenor says:

      I found the Kingston book a huge motivator. The one thing you really take away from Kondo is the joy thing. But it’s so huge. It can help you move from knowing you need to declutter to having an approach that allows you to detach.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Matt Boucher says:

        I did it, too! After reading your blog post, I tossed all my books on the floor (rather than cry, though, I just laughed at how ridiculous that huge pile looked!). Now I have less than 40 volumes on one shelf I’m keeping–and six boxes of books to sell! Thanks again.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Matt Boucher says:

        I looked at the books I had kept and the best word that sums them up is, “therapeutic.” They soothe me, whether any given book is spiritual, soulful, thought-provoking, or just looks beautiful!


  17. Loving Language says:

    This was really hard to read. My heart hurts thinking about getting rid of my books–even the “clutter” books. I’m also afraid that I won’t know joy when I feel it, that nostalgia will grip me, that past selves will hold me down.

    Ugh, I have a headache–but I know I have to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Loving Language says:

        Thank you. I’ll look forward to that point. If yo don’t mind my asking, how did you know it was time for you?

        I so want to be free of the “energy” roadblocks that stymie my creativity. I tend not to look at my environment very much, and that might come from the fact that I don’t *want* to look at my environment, for fear of having to do something.

        Thank you again for the encouragement.

        *Takes deep breath.*

        Liked by 1 person

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