Stuffed closets. Dangerous junk drawers. Crowded cabinets. Bloated bookshelves. All have come under the gaze of Marie Kondo and her legions of folding-frenzied fans. But none hit a nerve quite like the bookshelf. On an episode of her smash-hit Netflix special, Kondo advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few. The Internet did what it does best: It went bananas. How dare she come for books! #TeamClutter, meet #TeamCensorship. Of course, there was a backlash to the backlash, with the expected explanation from Kondo that not all books gotta go. The visceral reaction, even without the social-media hyperbole, was hard to ignore. Books are more than objects. They are filled with ideas, stories, versions of ourselves, memories. Bookshelves are like your wardrobe: They send a message. And the message these famous book lovers shared with us is loud and clear: Books spark joy.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Best-selling young-adult author, Newbery Honor winner
As soon as you walk in the door, there is a shelf with at least 12 art books: Egon Schiele, Mark Rothko, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Paul Klee. Above that are my most prized books. I have a first-edition signed Toni Morrison “Beloved.” I have Langston Hughes’s “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” I have Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” first-edition James Baldwins, first-edition Richard Wrights, old black folk-tale books from Julius Lester, Countee Cullen, all kinds of very rare books.
I’m only really careful with the Langston Hughes because it’s so rare and so fragile. Books are to be handled; even though I love them and they are prized possessions, I don’t want to glass-case them. I just can’t see myself hiding things that I consider art.
I pick them up all the time. There are moments when I’m in my office and those books in there don’t always do it, so I need to shake loose. I go up to the front of the house and pull out Jamaica Kincaid’s short stories, or some of the old Baldwin stuff and just poke around and see what my ancestors and the people who have made a way for me have done. It always seems to work.
I have a side table where I keep whatever I’m thinking about reading next. I can’t put them on the shelf or I’ll forget about them. Right now it’s Eileen Myles’s “Afterglow,” about her dog; “Tyrant,” which breaks down all the politics in Shakespeare; and “The World According to Fannie Davis,” which is about Bridgett Davis’s mom, who was a numbers runner in Detroit. Under there, I keep Bauman Rare Books catalogues, because I’m a huge rare-books nerd.
On the coffee table at the moment are coffee table books: “The History of Rap,” the book “Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan,” which I’m thankfully featured in. And then these two large-format photo journals, one from Iran and one about Hong Kong.
There’s always something on the kitchen counter, usually whatever was just in my bag. There’s Marlon James’s “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.” I had gone to a reading Marlon did in D.C. And then there’s the book I’ve read about 50 times: “Another Brooklyn,” by Jacqueline Woodson. I’m still trying to figure out how she wrote a book that spans 25 years in only 25,000 words.
My office is just books everywhere. There is no order. There is no rhyme or reason. They’re every which way. There are picture books, an old Scrabble board, cookbooks, typewriters, newspapers that have stories that I’m inspired by, fan art that I’ve framed, stickers and finger puppets that kids have given me. I’ve got Spider-Man toys given to me by Marvel, my own books. I should be more organized, but I’m not an organized person. It’s a good example of how my mind works.
The only time I get rid of books is when I have multiples. I send them to schools and to people who need them. I know people say, “What’s the point in keeping them if you’ve already read them?” But they’re reference. This is my craft. These are my tools. That would be like the construction worker saying he has too many hammers.
Best-selling author who traded England for New England
I’ve run out of space. Books are starting to get stacked up on the floor, underneath tables, underneath chairs, on top of tables. They’re everywhere. With no more room on the bookshelves, I’ve been eyeing this gorgeous French armoire that takes up an entire wall. That wall is just perfect for shelves and would make the room warmer. I know, however, that my husband really likes the armoire. He sees: storage, storage, storage. I see: books, books, books. We’ll see who wins.
For years, I couldn’t get rid of anything. I have had to learn to manage the flow. Paperbacks I tend not to keep unless I love them and know I’m going to reread them. Hardcovers are really hard for me to get rid of. They all signify a time in my life. They all have stories around the stories. I will sometimes just stand there and look at my books and remember.
The first place I go in someone’s house is their bookshelves. You can tell exactly who they are.
I used to do something that I now realize was a bit creepy. After my first book was published and very successful, I was looking for a flat in London. Almost every flat I went into had my book on the shelf. I’d take it down and sign it! Sometimes, I even personalized it: “To Julia, with love, Jane Green.” I’ve never heard from anyone, but if they ever come across that, they’ll likely freak out.
Last summer, I started a little mobile library called the Remarkable Bookcycle. For 35 years, there was a bright pink bookstore in my town called Remarkable Book Shop. We had this cargo tricycle just sitting in our garage. I paid a high school student to turn it into a mobile free library. We cycle it around the beach in summer. I lurk around the bookcycle; I love to watch what happens. What’s extraordinary is that everyone gathers around the bookcycle and has conversations. I’m now able to get rid of books much more easily knowing they’re going to a good home.
I think I like to be surrounded by books when I’m writing, but the truth is I don’t. I’m easily distracted. I’ve done my best writing at my local public library in one of those little cubbies with noise-canceling headphones. If I need to do some research, I just make a note for later. If I go to a book or online, the whole day could be gone. Writing takes focus, and books pull mine in a million directions.
I subscribe to Nancy Lancaster’s rule of decorating; she’s an American decorator who moved to England in the ’20s. She brought the English country-house style into the mainstream. Her rules were that a home should always have books, candles and flowers. I walk into so many houses today that have been decorated. They’re exquisite. I find them beautiful: two artfully placed objets, stunning coffee table books. For a minute, I think, “I wish my house looked like this.” But then I remember I don’t feel like taking off my shoes and curling up on the sofa in these homes. In fact, I sit there terrified I’m going to spill red wine. A home needs a bit of curated clutter, and that curated clutter has to include things that tell the story of your life, of what you love. For me, that’s books.
Andrew Sean Greer
Author and 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner
It’s a mess. Finally, they’re built in. After years having books hanging out all over the place, I finally hired someone to build shelves. And at first, I thought, “Oh, I have so much space,” but they’ve gotten out of control. I’ve been traveling so much that I haven’t had time to tend to them. They just seem to gather.
I don’t aim for perfection. My method is I alphabetize, but it just has to be within the letter. I don’t go Chabon, Cunningham — no, no no. No. Close enough works. I did work at a bookstore, but I struggled with Gabriel García Márquez. I didn’t understand — is he in the G’s or the M’s? But here I am, Andrew Sean Greer, and I find myself in foreign libraries shelved under S. Serves me right.
I have art with the books, in front of them, all over the place. And there’s a ukulele up there. I could get the place into shape and it would look lived-in and adorable, but I just haven’t. It’s funny, I have friends who are designers and I ask them: What do you think I should do with my house? They say: “First of all, you need to get doors to cover over the bookshelves so they’re not visible!” It bothers them so much. They find bookshelves so chaotic.
As much as I love books, I’m not that fetishistic about them. I have a copy of “Rebecca” that Jonathan Lethem gave me from his bookstore in Maine. It’s a beautiful edition, and I don’t want to loan that to anyone. It’s touching to me. I love that edition, that particular book. But most other books, I don’t feel that way. Maybe that’s why I am able to sell them.
I told this to a friend recently, and he was just appalled that I would ever get rid of any book. You know the books you still want, and you know the ones that are just never gonna happen. It doesn’t call to you. You just send those off to Dog Eared Books.
I absolutely look at people’s bookshelves. And I have some judgment. I mean, they’re openly showing you themselves. If it’s a summer house, I don’t judge because they just brought over extra books — they’re not serious. But if it’s all business-motivational, “Who Moved My Cheese?” kind of books, I’m like: Oh God, who is this person?
Mine feels very personal. It’s very me. It’s childish; it has kooky things all over it. Here’s an example. After I won the Pulitzer Prize, my friend threw me a party, and I still have the sign that was on his door: “Pulitzer Prize winner this way! Welcome to the party!” That’s been on my bookshelf ever since. Does it really belong on my bookshelf? I don’t know. But it’s sweet, and that’s why it’s there.
Carla D. Hayden
Librarian of Congress
You can imagine this is something I love to talk about, but I also do so with trepidation. I’m someone who has books all over the house. I appreciate Marie Kondo, her philosophy about holding on to only the things that spark joy, but every single one of these books sparks joy. I feel good just looking at them. So by her standards, I’m doing okay. What 30 books does Ms. Kondo keep? Are they the same books or does she rotate them? I’d be fascinated to know.
My books are an integral part of my decor. They have to be, because I’m not hiding them. There are books about decorating with books — putting baskets on them, creating montages, stacking them like wallpaper. There are ways to make room for more books and still have room to live. You do have to have some boundaries, so no books in the bathroom.
In the TV room, there are books linked to entertainment, comedians, Bette Davis — I love Bette Davis. And I have my little figurines from “The Big Bang Theory” on the shelves. By the CD player — yeah, I still have a CD player — those are books about music and musicians. In the living room, it’s more history, art, travel. In the kitchen-pantry area: my Julia Child collection, B. Smith’s books about entertaining, all those “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat”-type books and cookbooks, though I don’t cook much. I mean, I even have books about cookbooks. I have books about books!
In my dressing area, I’m surrounded by books about fashion. I have an aspirational section, dealing with exercise and weight loss, all kinds of diet books — seldom used, but they are there, just waiting for me to be inspired.
I have baskets of books in the guest room for the taking. That’s where I put my mysteries and books of the moment — books that everyone was talking about and you just had to have. I love mysteries and can consume an entire series, but I don’t need to keep them forever. They’re like candy — good for sharing.
I do not loan books. I’d rather just buy you your own copy. I learned that lesson early on and had to toughen up. When you give a book to someone, they might not feel the same way about it that you do. It’s just a book that piqued their interest. They don’t treat it like you do. And you don’t realize how much it meant until you don’t get it back. I do keep a few books closer to me, hidden but in reach. Let’s just say the guest room is not where I keep my signed copy of “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
I remember early on, in my first apartment, I was a little concerned. I was dating, and looked around and thought, “Hmm, there really are a lot of books in here.” That’s when I got the best advice I was ever given: If the person you are thinking about dating comes over and sees a lot of books and that’s not a good sign for them, that tells you something.
Chef, activist and restaurateur
My book collection is little bit messy. I have books in the bathroom, books in the TV room. My wife and I both have books in the bedroom, on both sides of the bed. Books in the main library, books in the dining room. And in the kitchen, we have whatever we are working with at that moment. Right now, it’s a book from a chef in Spain, from the 1890s. I have a lot of books everywhere.
It gives you a feeling of protection. I like the smell of old books — especially old books that have a dried flower, a piece of paper, a note on the edge. It’s fascinating. For a guy like me who left his country young, it’s almost like my cape. I’m more powerful with them around.
The Kindle works very well for new books. But when you want to have a true window into the past, if you have the original version of it, it’s very powerful. If you don’t really understand the first edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” then you really don’t understand “The Joy of Cooking.” The first “Joy” gives you a window into what was happening in America in the beginning of the 1900s. Sometimes we forget that more information doesn’t equal better information.
I have enough books in my house for the rest of my lifetime. I have more than 30 Japanese manga books that I haven’t even opened, and at least 26 comic books from a Spanish comic. I don’t give away books to make room for more. I’m not in that moment in my life yet. I’m still a keeper.
A book that I have in my bedroom is by Leopoldo Alas, a very important novelist in Spain at the end of the 19th century. His novel “Adios, Cordera” tells the story of two kids in a rural Spanish area that’s meeting new technology. It’s a beautiful story that I’ve read several times. I like melancholy, and this is a very melancholy book. They see their cow, Cordera, leaving on the train. And then one of the boys leaves on the same train to go to war. It’s about how modernity is great sometimes, but it can disturb the peaceful life of normal people who just want to live their lives. Every time I read this book, I find something new. The connection to Washington, for example. I had a place across the street from the Old Post Office, and there’s a plaque stating it was where the first commercial telegraph was sent. I thought that was a hint when I read it, of all things connecting: that all these stories mix together in the beautiful chaos of life.
Former NFL player, author and creator of the Imagination Agency
I have a couple thousand books now, so I had to take my library out of the house and into my studio. But we still have books all over the house. I like to stack them on the floor, use them as decoration, put them on a coffee table. I like them within reach. When you’re surrounded by them, you’re more inspired to pick them up. We’re in a new house and even my wife said, “I kind of miss the books. Where are we going to put them?”
I was like, “I thought you’d never ask.” I plan on building a library in the house so my daughter can be surrounded by them. I want shelves on the staircase, too, so you’re reminded to read every time you walk up and down. When you’re surrounded by books it reminds you of what you don’t know.
Whenever I start a project, I start with books. I don’t go to the Internet. On the Internet, algorithms are the new librarian. And you can pay the algorithm to offer up certain content. That’s why everything starts to feel the same, because we’re all going to the same source. I want to find my own result. I look at every book as a conversation. I may never get to meet that person or talk to them, but I can still learn so much from them through their books.
I organize by ideas. If I’m writing about dinosaurs, I’ll have every single book about dinosaurs already in the same section — children’s books, history books, comic books. For me, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” are together because they’re both about traveling through another universe, finding another world.
I like to have a book in my hand. It’s super motivating when you can look back and see how much you’ve already read, how many pages are behind you. It’s like running: If you can look back and see how far you’ve come, you’re inspired to keep on going. That’s why e-readers are hard. I tried, but I like to feel things. I like to look around me and see all the books, all the possibilities. I don’t ever want to be the smartest person in the room. As long as I have books around me, I won’t be.