I remember the feeling of finishing James Baldwin’s Another Country – lying, mid-twenties, on a rented bed, praying – please, one day, let me be able to write like this. I remember the Sunday I read Sophie’s Choice from front to back, one of my favourite reading experiences – gripping, unexpectedly vibrant, and beautifully sad. That Sunday, I didn’t shower, get dressed, or cook. At three o’clock I went out for a packet of crisps to keep me going. Someone on Twitter many years later asked me what flavour. (Plain – I couldn’t take any more excitement). I finished that copy of Sophie’s Choice shortly before midnight. I still have it. I may never read it again.
This January, like everyone else, my wife and I have been tidying our house according to the laws of Marie Kondo. My wife is a compulsive thrower-out, I’m a hoarder. I used to be terminally untidy; I’ll never forget the look on the face of one of my college friends when she saw me pull a missing high-heeled shoe out of a drawer full of tangled electrical flex.
A lot of people have been writing about Marie Kondo and her advice about books, horrified that she might be advocating getting rid of books we’ve read, or half-read, or may never read at all. When I hold a cardigan or dress in my hands, I can tell whether or not it sparks joy. Books are more complex, but they need to earn their place in our lives, like everything else.
Within the Marie Kondo book debate, there’s another conversation that interests me more, a conversation about what books are actually for. We think that books are meant to improve us, but they don’t have to. Nor do they have to make us happy. Shortly before Christmas, I had a conversation with a colleague who I’d worked on a book project with, and we laughed over which books we loved that didn’t make us feel remotely good. His choice was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I remember reading that book too, stumbling off a night-bus from Oxford to London at four in the morning, staring blearily at the deserted streets and wondering if I was living in the apocalyptic landscape of the book. It wasn’t a joyful experience, but it was one I’ll never forget.
There is no need to be precious about books. We can throw them out, we can hang onto them though we know we’ll never open them again. The experience of reading those books is coded in them – the feeling of reading them comes back to me when I look at their spines. If I look at a book and feel nothing, I set it free and keep it moving. The books I keep still hold their stories, and all of the promise they held before I picked them up. I may never be a minimalist, but I can always find my shoes these days. I like to think that’s something.