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Decluttering Can't Be Done By The Book

I am all for decluttering and feel a palpable sense of relief when I clean out my bulging cupboards. But recently, I noticed that the decluttering movement might have gone too far.
White covered books on bookshelf
White covered books on bookshelf

Visit any new or recently renovated house and you will be struck by the clean, clear sense of space. The kitchen benches and shelves will be free of clutter, with just a well-placed candle as decoration. The living area will, most likely, be open plan with little furniture other than the kitchen table and couches.

This aesthetic is part of a wider decluttering movement, in which people remove unwanted items from their homes to create a sense of practical and metaphorical space; both their houses and minds are freed from clutter.

The obsession with decluttering is relatively new. In the not-too-distant past, it was a source of pride to have every inch of the chiffonier covered with ornaments, photographs and doilies. Nowadays, Gen Y's barely even know what a chiffonier is, let alone why it was so cluttered.

I am all for decluttering and feel a palpable sense of relief when I clean out my bulging cupboards. But recently, I noticed that the decluttering movement might have gone too far.

According to the gospel of Marie Kondo, a Japanese guru of decluttering who is inspiring disciples around the world, people should dispense with objects that don't bring them joy. Fair enough. This involves removing whole categories of items from where they have been stuffed into cupboards, behind couches and, in my case, on top of the fridge or in the shed, and giving or throwing them away if they do not spark joy.

First, the declutterer should tackle clothes, as they are the least emotionally loaded, then move on to books and other items next. Wait. Get rid of books? Surely not. This is where I have to draw the line.

For me, books that have been read are far from being mere junk. They are not just a temporary form of entertainment that should be dispensed with after use.

I think a huge bookcase filled with all of the stories I have discovered in the past, and some I am yet to delve into, is one of the most beautiful and interesting features of a house. Rather than clutter, a full bookcase can take the place of art. Even better if a ladder on wheels or a cosy reading chair is added to the mix.

When I was house hunting, one of the most memorable houses I saw was a small, ramshackle cottage with an arched bookshelf visible as you opened the front door. I was ready to hand over the deposit, despite the disintegrating foundations and brittle weatherboards, on the strength of that gorgeous bookshelf.

In my house, I sometimes like to cast my eyes along the shelves and remember the stories I have read, where I was at the time, and how they made me feel. As a source of nostalgia and repository of memories, they are second only to photographs.

Far from all bringing me joy, some have brought me pain; others, confusion, despair or fear. I don't need to feel a spark of joy for them to be of value, through the memories they evoke or the ideas and truths they contain, which I plan, one day, to revisit.

As Sting wrote in his memoir, Broken Music: "For to sit in a room full of books, and remember the stories they told you, and to know precisely where each one is located and what was happening in your life at time or where you were when you first read it is the languid and distilled pleasure of the connoisseur."

I also love it that my friends and family use my book collection as a kind of library, asking me for recommendations and borrowing books. They always know I will have something to offer, although whether they like all the recommendations is another matter. Often, when one of my brothers is about to travel, he visits to find something to read on his journey.

In the future, I'm looking forward to watching my children select their own choice of books from the heavily laden shelves. Will they choose Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton? Will they adore The Catcher in the Rye as I did, and will they see the twist coming in The Life of Pi? Perhaps they will add their own selection to the bookcase and all of our personalities will be meshed together in one heaving bookcase.

My parents' bookshelf is a treasure trove of well-loved books from our childhood, recycled through the generations. A growing brood of grandchildren discover books that I enjoyed as a child and my mother remembers reading to me, books that I now read to my children. Just the other day, I opened A Fly Went By and was struck by a sense of nostalgia; for once, childhood didn't seem so remote to me. Our family has few priceless heirlooms, apart from these books, and certainly none as useful and accessible.

In other people's houses, I love to browse their bookshelves to find out more about them, as nothing is quite as revealing as person's choice of books. Perhaps there will be a row of Lonely Planet or A Rough Guide travel books from their backpacking days. There may be sports or political biographies. Or the novel I have just finished reading, or was considering reading next. Whether they prefer Heston Blumenthal or Maggie Beer, Abbott or Obama, is laid out in front of me on the shelves.

Writer, humorist and dramatist Douglas Adams even gave a name to the way people stand when examining other people's bookshelves: to stand ahenny.

One of my very intellectual and cosmopolitan friends has a penchant for fantasy novels, which I only recently discovered when browsing her bookshelf.

When we first met, I remember being intrigued by my now-husband's eclectic selection of books, ranging from Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice to the Dalai Lama's An Open Heart.

So many potential conversations, and just as many debates, can be ignited simply by a glance at someone's bookshelf. I hope that all of those whose houses I will visit in the future will bypass the bookshelves when they go to declutter.

As Malcolm Gladwell writes: "Anyone who has ever scanned the bookshelves of a new girlfriend or boyfriend -- or peeked inside his or her medicine cabinet -- understands this implicitly; you can learn as much -- or more -- from one glance at a private space as you can from hours of exposure to a public face."

So, sure, take away all of those old clothes that are too stained, misshapen or pilled to wear. My old school assignments should have gone long ago, and so should those mismatched sheets at the back of the linen cupboard. The Salvos can have my old tennis racquet and the running shoes that remain Jerry Seinfeld-white.

But please, step back from my bookcase. There are too many memories and raw emotions, too much joy, pathos, laughter and despair, to ever be replaced by a sense of space.


For more on books, visit Fleur Morrison's Readability blog

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