Maybe Marshall McLuhan knows why Marie Kondo makes you So Mad

Last year I started writing a series of essays about the form of the book. The first one that I published included Marie Kondo, because I thought her approach to books as objects was interesting, and Marshall McLuhan, because he wrote a whole book — The Gutenberg Galaxy — on the impact of printed books on European culture. I noticed a way in which they dovetail. Marie Kondo just released a series based on her books on Netflix, and people are getting themselves in fits about the decluttering of books, so I’m going to lay out the McLuhan/Kondo connection as to one possibility as to why. It has to do with print culture.

Keith Richards, haptic & relaxed

In the middle ages, there weren’t many books, so people often read aloud in groups. Because of this connection between reading and talking, people moved their vocal chords when reading, even when reading silently. Reading wasn’t a private, or entirely visual activity. A book at this time was about the price of a new car today (and could be, in fact, priceless and elevated to the status of a relic). Manuscripts were often kept carefully locked up. Commercial publishing, which came about at about the same time as mechanically printed book, changed that. So, if I measure my wealth today in books — by quantity —against a medieval king, I am much, much richer. But he had the power to own a priceless object and I don’t. I don’t own anything that needs to be permanently chained down. I lack his power, but I can live lightly and give my books away. I think I am so lucky to have a relationship with books like this.

I design books and maybe you do, too. Or maybe you write them or illustrate them. But if you don’t, you might never have thought much about how a modern book gets to you. Their widespread availability is almost invisible. The format feels entirely traditional. But it’s not. For example, the covers on books that we buy now are produced by professionals, working as a team — each bringing specialized training to make a product that sells enough copies to make it cheap enough for the average person to buy. Therefore, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people have books with covers that look like yours. Just a few generations ago, you — if you were the type of you who had access to books — would have been part of the process: picking and arranging the contents from bins, choosing a style of binding, providing material for the cover, slicing open the pages as you read with a paper knife.

Book covers are now sophisticated packaging for the contents inside. That’s why Jan Tschichold, the famous art director for Penguin in the 1950s, assumed readers would throw their book’s dust jacket away after purchase. It’s packaging. So if you (today) throw away a dust jacket, there’s nothing to feel guilty about. It’s just a wrapper. It protected the book before purchase and connected you to the book’s contents. You can recycle it if you want (but it will hurt its resale value).

The book didn’t get to its modern form—affordable, accessible, and uniform— on its own. We got really good at producing things cheaply and quickly. And through that process, we’ve arrived at peak consumption: peak home furnishings, peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff. We know how to sell items really well, but not how to live with what we make.

A successful book can now sell millions of copies. Millions of copies of a single text was unthinkable in the early days of the printing press. One of the earliest printers in Europe, Fust, sold several editions of the same Bible to King Louis XI of France and was nearly put to death for witchcraft because of it. Parisian authorities at that time could not conceive of even a single duplicate copy of a book. But we don’t live in those early days of printing anymore. And we need to know what that means to appreciate our present-day relationship with the book.

Marie Kondo has sold over 8 million copies of a book herself, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, that has a whole chapter devoted to “decluttering books.” She is best known for the concept of only keeping items in your home that “spark joy.” If it doesn’t spark joy immediately but is useful to you, you cultivate gratitude for it. Her approach to keeping items is basically the same as William Morris’, which was, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” But instead of beauty as a measure (and it’s worth noticing the visual measure as the most trustworthy one to Morris), it’s the positive emotion that an object evokes that is the measure. You touch the book to judge it, like this:

Take all of your books off of your shelves and gently clap the dust off each one. Hold the book but don’t open it. Keep it if it makes you feel good and put it back on the shelf (as I described in my original essay about this).

It’s the not checking inside part of the process that’s most interesting to me; it recognizes that books are often much more than the content of the text within them.

This joy-sparking direction in general can make people angry and when applied to books, even more so. People who get mad, seem to be certain that they are defending the book. Or freedom. Or personal expression. But the goal isn’t to eliminate books and it never was. So what are they defending? I think they are defending the book as an idea as much as an object, without considering it’s existence as a printed book, meaning a mechanically produced book, a copy. This is what I find interesting.

Marshall McLuhan argued that, not only did the printed book bring about the industrial age, but also argued that it, as a tool, it separated the reader from all of his (emphasis on his) other senses. The printed book did this by training the reader to receive readymade books rather than to write them out by hand or read them aloud in groups. This process trained the reader to prioritize visual information. Tone of voice, style of handwriting, other people reacting around the reader to an orally shared text— all of these were erased by mechanization. This was the end of the haptic or multisensory era and the beginning of the typographic and visual era.

Knowing this might shed some light on why Morris judged items by beauty rather than emotion.The era that followed the printing press was defined by the authority of the printed word and the authority of the European man who controlled that process. Our laws relate to the authority of the printed word. Our ideas about civility and the role of the press relate to the printed word. As McLuhan pointed out, the power of the printed word and its influence upon us was invisible until its singular authority started to wane as other media became available, like film and radio. Digital media is a further hit to the authority of the printed book. A book can now be printed that has differences coded into each copy. We don’t print by a master template in the same way we used to. Our access to news is faster and more flexible, which is liberating and scary.

Mechanical print is now part of a prior era. We are either in the second phase of that one, or a brand new one, but either way, the context for evaluating printed objects has changed. So, I think it’s interesting that Kondo suggests that we use our full range of senses to judge the place and value of books. I think that this, according to McLuhan, might be working against a value system we’ve built up for the last 500 years, which is, significantly, in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own success.

According to McLuhan, the printed word also ushered in an age of the binary and has taught us to think in binary terms. He argued that print split man in two, dividing him from nature, and extending and applying this divide to further thinking and enquiry. The question, “should I declutter my books?” is treated by angry book defenders online as one half of an argument instead of a single, equally valid possibility, one of many. Marie Kondo isn’t on a side. She isn’t interested in all homes meeting a universal standard, an ideal quantity of books. She advises developing an individual standard, based on the personal relationship we each have with own books. Her book is not written with any numerical or visual principals as a measure. By embracing the haptic, not the visual, she may have stepped out of the binary thinking that McLuhan argued was brought in by the typographic era. To those who have tried to fight her method, she responded:

“So it’s not so much what I personally think about books. The question you should be asking is what do you think about books. If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you how passionate you are about books, what’s clearly so important in your life.”

There is no right amount of books, so there should be no fight. With her suggestion, Kondo steps out of the logic of the universal standard that mechanical printing brought in, and slips out of the binary.

Stepping outside of McLuhan’s theories and back to my own point of view, I’m happy to follow her in that direction. There’s no other direction to go, because the era of consumption and of the binary is increasingly unstable, hopefully ending. And I’m writing this surrounded by books, and I’m in the middle of making several more. I am aware of each one. And, yes, they bring me joy. On the other hand, I’m finding less and less joy online these days—or is it just me?