Objects are meant to be static and to occupy a single place in the world. We think of the things that surround us as being testable, probable, picked-up-and-examined-able. We turn them over, look at their various angles, set them down, and go on our ways. Normal, everyday interaction. Yet some objects give us a little emotional jolt, something that the “decluttering guru” Marie Kondo has dubbed “spark joy“. (I know, the label is a terrible one, and ironic that her sequel on decluttering gives the same advice as her first book but with illustrations. When decluttering her clutter which version of her book do you throw out?) What is this reaction all about and what does it mean for the books in our lives?
Primarily I would define that pleasant little affective perk in terms of association. Almost always, at least for me, when a physical object triggers something emotional in me it is because of its associative memories. It brings back a time, a place, a person, a face, a feeling, a thought, a whole encapsulated era of my life that gets shrunk down to this. A couple of years ago when my mother decided to sell her house and move she told me that she found some things of mine that I needed to go through. Amongst those items I found an old textbook from a History of Pre-Soviet Modern Russia class that I took which instantly transported me to my uni days, who I took the course with, the lectures I sat through, and the incredible tandem the professor once indulged in on why the Chinese built the Great Wall in the manner which they did. I have no love for that book and I wouldn’t say that it gave me any “spark joy” moments, but it was fun finding it. And then there were all those copies of the books that I did – or do – love to be re-discovered as well.
I’ve moved close to twenty times so far in my life and books have unfortunately often been the victims of those choices. A necessary evil, mostly, but there are some that I simply cannot bring myself to get rid of. Some massively bulky ones like From Hell, but also some slim and tender ones like an old Washington Square Press version of The Communist Manifesto (follow that link to see the cover version I have in mind), as well as a very beat-up used (and original) copy of Reasons for Moving by Mark Strand that was given to me by a dear colleague just before I left the US for Japan (where, perhaps amazingly, I’ve stayed all these years). What do these books I mention have in common? Nothing, of course, except that they all mean something to me. And something very special at that.
This is the real beauty of a book that you hold in your hands, a beauty that contains within it some of the considerations I’ve noted elsewhere but also a lot more. It’s a beauty that is entirely reflective of you and your singular path through this stunning world that so awes us when we take a moment to look at it. Those books and many more have shaped my life in ways far beyond the usual factory mold elements of family, country, language, time, geography, DNA, economics, local schools, neighborhood friends. My dancings with them have been the movements of my being and relating to them through my senses brings all of that rushing back. It’s no secret that an ebook does nothing like this but with an ebook the words are still there and they might be enough to conjure up a shadow of the memories that a real book does. On that count I suppose that many of us are very different and much depends on our personal stances towards the digital. For me what it means to love a book is far too special to be put into bytes of ones and zeroes, but then I’m of the type that has always preferred bites over bytes for everything. Some books will always stay on my shelves.