How many books really ‘spark joy’? Damned few….

It has been clear-out time. I have been off the booze, filing the accumulated correspondence of the past three years, tidying up anything within reach.

I have become a crashing bore, in fact.

And it will be worth it, this great purge of the house with a January enema (anyone who thinks this metaphor is excessive hasn’t seen my office).

At first it was grim but soon, as my recycling bin fills with paper (as do, at the dead of night, those of my neighbours – don’t tell), a sort of manic joy has kicked in.

It was at that moment that I read a remark by the so-called ‘tidiness guru’, Marie Kondo. She said  that we should only have possessions which serve a practical purpose or ‘spark joy’. There was for example absolutely no need, Marie continued, to have more than 30 books.

All hell broke loose online and in the press. Every boastful book-lover who writes a blog (and that’s a lot) declared that the tidiness guru was a terrible philistine, that she didn’t understand the magic of books. They posted photographs of themselves in book-lined rooms and sneered at her in tweets.

It has never been clearer that some people measure their own virtue, wit, intelligence, knowledge and sensitivity by the length of their bookshelves. The quantity of books they own reflect how civilised and worthy they are

Five of my Top 30 hits

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Mid-tidy, duster in hand, I took a closer look at the absurd number of books cluttering up  – yes, cluttering up  – my house. How many of them could I honestly say ‘sparked joy’? A little stab of nostalgia, maybe, a twinge of disbelief, a stomach-punch of boredom. But joy? Damned few.

So then, inspired by the brave and wise Marie  Kondo, I attacked. Out went many of the books I published back in the 1970s and early 1980s. On to the reject pile went old favourites which, in my deluded youth I once loved, but now disappoint, annoy or simply bore me.

A large number of books on my shelves were the Thing of the Moment. On some distant day, a friend had said ‘You must read this’. I did. I may even have liked it. But now I can remember nothing about it. Far from sparking joy, its presence reminds me of how ephemeral most books are, even the Things of the Moment.

Then there were Duty Books, bought during some self-improvement jag when I was trying to be more intelligent and knowledgeable than I really am. Maybe I knew that  I would never get around to reading it; buying the thing was almost like reading it. I would gain some benefit just by owning it. And there the Duty Book sits – reproachful, unread, gathering dust.

Out they go. Life offers me enough guilt trips without my books joining in the chorus.

And that’s before we get to the books I have written: all those author copies, sitting on the shelves, some of them growing brown around the edges like ancient volumes in a charity shop. The foreign language editions of my children’s book are now going to refugee children (‘Haven’t they suffered enough?’ a friend remarked rather unkindly). The rest I now give to anyone who might be interested – and to some who are not.

I’ll admit I haven’t reached Marie Kondo’s ideal. That remains a distant fantasy but, as I tidied, I began to think, in no particular order,  of my magic thirty. It changes every day – I could even come up with an entirely different Top Thirty  – but right now it goes…

  1. Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
  2. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  3. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  4. Martin Amis, The Information
  5. Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
  6. Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia’s Shadow
  7. Joseph Heller, Something Happened
  8. Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are
  9. Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather
  10. Ira Gershwin, Lyrics on Several Occasions
  11. AM Holmes, This Book Will Save Your Life
  12. John Skelton, Complete Poems
  13. William Donaldson, Is This Allowed?
  14. Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater
  15. Roger Deakin, Waterlog
  16. Raymond Carver, Collected Poems
  17. Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
  18. Alice McDermott, That Night
  19. Jonathan Frantzen, The Corrections
  20. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  21. Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
  22. John Updike, Rabbit at Rest
  23. Ted Hughes, Letters
  24. Laurie Colwin, Family Happiness
  25. George Eliot, Middlemarch
  26. George Saunders, Pastorlia
  27. Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
  28. Peter Tinniswood, A Touch of Daniel
  29. Janet Hobhouse, The Furies
  30. David Hughes, The Little Book

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Simon Haines

My study needs an enema if you’re running out of things to tidy Terence. For some strangely obsessive reason I have kept two of every book I’ve written, taking twice as much as they need. The best comment made to me by a friend when I told him about the book I was writing for schools. “Do they need another one?” He said. Sadly I doubt I could make a list if my favourite 30 books. The only one on both our lists would be Madame Bovary. Seriously though, in the last 30 years I’ve written more books than I’ve… Read more »