In her hit Netflix series Tidying Up, organizing guru Marie Kondo jokingly implied people should only keep 30 books in their home. The backlash from literary lovers was swift, and I totally relate: I think there are more than 30 books in my car right now.
As so many of us know, books aren’t like the shoes you once wore that are too small after you gave birth. They’re not an outdated lampshade or the broken chair in the corner. They’re not the cat carrier that can’t be fixed. A book isn’t a knickknack or the dust mop or the socks with holes in them. Books are decor. They’re art. They’re dreams. They’re the things you put on the shelves to add color, light, and personal flair. They tell the world what you believe and what you hold most dear.
Open a book and you’re not in the room anymore. You’re in the Heart of Darkness or you’re hanging out with Lizzie at Pemberley. You’re visiting the moon with Robert Heinlein, at Hogwarts with Hermione and Professor Dumbledore. You’re sitting at Marmee’s feet while Beth plays the piano and Meg mends a worn dress for the third time. You’re watching the real story of Marie Antoinette unfold at the court of Versailles while people plot the storming of the Bastille. You’re there with Rashi’s daughters as they prepare for shabbos with their beloved papa.
I first began collecting books when I was 10. There was a book sale at our yeshiva and I proudly brought in all the money I had saved from my birthday. I bought a copy of Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life to take home with me and I was deliciously happy. My own book — I could read it again and again as often as I liked without worrying about stained pages and library return fines.
In the years since, my collection of books has only grown. It was about 50 large boxes when we moved the year before last. I seek them out at library sales for a quarter, half price on Amazon, and the occasional garage sales that dot our suburban streets each spring and fall. I haunt the remainder table at the local bookstore and treat myself to a new book now and then. My husband lovingly adds to my collection with books that shows he really knows me: the recent Ruth Bader Ginsburg biography, for example, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Paul Offit’s latest book on popular medical issues. There’s even one with my name as co-author that occupies a prized place, making me smile just a little a dozen times a day. I am working on another I hope will sit right next to it.
Our book collection now tumbles across our entire house. Just about every single corner has something to read — we have books in the bathroom, under the bed, beneath the stairs in the basement. They greet guests in the entryway to our home; there they are, next to the scarves and hats, and they’re every bit as useful. Cookbooks line the kitchen backsplash; some of the have a bit of ginger tucked in the corners or remnants of chicken soup I accidentally spilled on the cover in the kitchen. There’s another shelf devoted to our favorite comic strips, and another to remind us of the places we’ve seen in person and countries we’d like to see one day.
My house, as all proper houses should be, is a library. Houses are not just where we live out our daily lives, they are where we store what is most valuable to us. Books tell us who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve seen along the way. Look closely at the bookshelves and you will know what the real story of the people who live there.
As “the people of the book,” Jews everywhere have long clung to our tomes with great ferocity and enormous pride. They were one of the few things we could bring with us in the diaspora. In the small corners of Jewish home life, a life so often lived in the shadows, books served as reminders of our traditions.
At their essence, Jewish holidays emphasize the importance of remembering and cherishing our books and stories. At Rosh Hashanah, we talk of Hashem as a writer who writes books that can determine the course of our lives. When Purim arrives, we read from the Megillah of Esther and act out the events with great joy. Passover brings out yet another book of Jewish life and history: the Haggadah. In reading that book year after year, each generation looks at the Pesach story in a whole new light. I have one that belonged to my grandmother, with some notations in Yiddish; there’s another from the 1970s my mom left me in that speaks of significance of liberation from slavery for all people. Both have place on my personal bookshelves along with the ones I pick up from ShopRite annually just be on the safe side.
Let it be known, however, that I am not a hoarder. My personal collection gets culled now and then. But the ones I like best remain: Their bright colors add a raucous and a slight delicious gleam to my largely plain walls. A Kindle may be convenient, but it will not have the elegant golden lettering of my copy of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or the vivid red of my favorite biography of John Adams.
My eldest daughter is 16 and she’s started a book collection of her own. I hope she’ll keep buying books even in age of Kindles and computers. She loves the feel of the pages in her hand and the way the pages catch the light. I hope they will serve her as they have served me: as a chance to look at a shelf, pull out the exact book of her choice, and explore the same wonderful worlds over and over again.