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 one book lover shares is loud and clear.
Jason Reynolds is a best-selling young-adult author and 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’ “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’ “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’ 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’ “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.