Should I throw out books that don't spark joy?

The purge started last year, after reading Marie Kondo's The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I bought a digital copy, but if I had purchased it in print, it would have been the first item dropped into the recycling bin. If you're one of the two people left on earth who haven't read the book, I recommend just reading this summary of 8 key takeaways.

Kondo's prose wasn't fun to read, but the message was perfect for someone sharing a two bedroom apartment with a baby and all of his accoutrements. The clothes that didn't "spark joy" were easy to tackle. Goodbye to maternity clothes, threadbare because I had refused to buy more than the absolute minimum. The same went for nursing tops, sweaters destroyed by the first year of spit-up and blowouts, and, much to my delight, all the clothes in my first post-baby size.

With the books, the choice was just as simple. It was either them or the daily allergy meds required to share the same air. So I stockpiled loratadine. I wouldn't part with my library, built from my childhood favorites, added to with my first babysitting dollars and sustained through three degrees in English. But Kondo nagged each time I walked past the wall of extra-high shelves I had built to house my collection. Did the books spark joy? If not, what purpose did they serve?

As I looked at Chinese philosophy texts from my undergraduate years, outdated dictionaries in languages I don't speak, and pedagogical texts whose approach I would never follow in a classroom, I began to view my collection differently. The books weren't there to spark joy. They were there to make me look smart to whomever happened to enter my library. It was time to bid at least some of my books goodbye. 

Although Kondo's suggestion to thank items for their service seemed ridiculous when sifting through my clothes, it offered me days of reflection with my books. As I leafed through the books, collecting bookmarks, post-its and loose papers stuck between pages, I thought about about who I was when I purchased those books and who they helped me become. Days later, when I looked at my pared-down library, I felt at once lighter and fuller, because the books speak to who I am now. 

Clearing out my books has helped me view the rest of my possessions differently. So many of the items in our home--the New Yorker subscription, the academic journals, provocative coffee table books--are there at least in part because I like to look and feel smart. But some of the objects that make me feel best about myself--my diplomas--have sat, carefully preserved in leather folders and poster tubes, from the moment right after I posed at each graduation. Hanging them on the wall has always felt stuffy. 

Gabrielle Stanley Blair, whose wonderful book Design Mom survived my purge, inspired me to use my diplomas in a new way. After moving into the home she and her family had designed, she painted over a blueprint. Hung in their new home, the artwork was a reminder to the family that "WE CAN DO HARD THINGS." 

Up against some tough deadlines today and repeating this in my head.

A photo posted by Gabrielle Blair (@designmom) on

I wasn't quite ready to paint over my diplomas. Vellum provided a less permanent solution:

You. Did. This.

You. Did. This.

My upcycled diplomas are still a a physical display of my "smarts." But unlike my company-facing book collection before them, they are tucked into a corner of the office that visitors don't often see. And in this new space, in front of me every time I sit down to write, they remind me to be proud of what I've done but be focused on what I'm doing next.