Remarking on the growth in independent bookshop numbers earlier this month, indie bookseller (and current Booksellers Association president) Nic Bottomley said that it felt like a "movement". It’s a well chosen word: a movement is a collective, an act of will, not always rational but usually carrying with it some momen- tum. Movements can change the world, of course.
But not all movements are benign. Marie Kondo is an organising consultant who has built a career decluttering our houses. She has written four books. The biggest of them, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, was published by Vermillion in the UK in 2014. She now has her own series on Netflix, with her unsparing advice around books causing a brief stir among the commentariat these past weeks.
In episode five "Frank & Matt", Kondo advises two writers to slim their libraries, saying separately that she limits her own book collection to just 30. At one point Kondo takes out every book from wherever it is hidden in the house and places them all on one table. Publishers, who may think a table is a perfectly good place to store books, might now be watching this through frit fingers, as the writers sift through those books that "bring them joy" and those that don’t (To Kill a Mockingbird, yes, The Girl on the Train seemingly not so much). Kondo’s movement is perfectly in tune to how today’s urbanites are living— space-poor, digitally enthusiastic, unsentimental. But a home where books are rationed is surely heresy for bookish folk?
I wonder. I think there may be a deeper story here. For years we have been told that printed books would decline, as vinyl, CDs and DVDs have, but the growth in physical book sales, the upswing in business at Waterstones and other smaller chains, and the rise in independent bookshop numbers (not just in the UK, but also in the US) shows that books are more resilient, that readers can discern a difference in experience between digital reading (or listening) and the physical object.
The Netflix series tells us something else too. The show is less a horror story for the trade, more a love letter. Kondo tells us to keep those books that bring us "joy" but move on from the rest—if books were easy to discard (or hard to love) there would be no drama. If books didn’t invite us to hold them, cherish them, spend time and money on them, and finally to preserve them, then the movement Bottomley rightly identifies would disappear, along with those bookshops who support it.
You might ask why a business magazine (such as The Bookseller) would fall into the trap of sentimentalising the business of books: readers love books, we get it. Bad books, good books, digital books, they all make a buck. Move on. Well, sort of. Across every sector of the books business, including the often neglected academic, schools and STM areas, we must all figure out where the printed book still has its place and where digital can now do a better job. Kondo is the opposite of sentimental—she forces us to examine what we love and why we hold onto it. But also how to move on.