From tiny homes to KonMari (Marie Kondo's decluttering manifesto); from living with only 50 things or 100 things, the world has been abuzz about minimalism for the last five years, and for good reason. Nobody wants to end up a hoarder, a psychological issue addressed by not one, but two different hit TV shows.
Of course, there's a huge gap between hoarders and minimalists. Most of us live somewhere between the two extremes. But unlike having too much stuff, the lure of minimalism is strong — and it's more attainable than ever, with many traditional clutter-creators like music albums, books, and magazines now easily tabletified and stored on tiny, internal computer drives.
It's not uncommon to walk into your friends' home and see no books on the shelves, no magazines on the coffee table, and no records or CDs scattered around — even though you know they are voracious consumers of both. It's clean, but it's also empty in a way, especially for those of us who enjoy perusing other people's bookshelves.
And what about growing up in a minimalist home vs. one filled with books? Being raised by my grandmother meant that I had access to three generations' worth of books and music, from my great-grandmother's original copy of "The Prophet" to my grandmother's books of poetry and Zane Grey titles, to my father's hippie tomes like "Kesey's Garage Sale" and, of course 1971's "Be Here Now" by Ram Dass. And don't get me started on the records! I spent many hours poring over them. Some of my dad's had been check-marked with his favorite songs.
Looking through these books and albums helped me understand my family better. It offered me clues to who they were as younger people — something most kids crave from their elders, especially around middle school and high school, as they are establishing their identities.
This young woman's enthusiastic video tour of her bookshelves only backs up this point:
The tension between a simple life and these meaningful clues
Teddy Wayne, writing for the Future Tense section of the New York Times, feels my pain. In his essay, he recounts how he found the Beatles via his parent's record collection and bemoans the loss of things that are often heave-ho'd in TV specials.
Wayne also brings up the excellent point that while we're crafting magazine-spread-worthy homescapes, kids in those homes might be missing out. He writes,
"Aside from the disappearance of record crates and CD towers, the loss of print books and periodicals can have significant repercussions on children’s intellectual development."
He goes on to cite a 2014 study that looked at home libraries and academic performance in children across several countries. The study authors found, "... the number of books in the family home exerts a strong influence on academic performance in ways consistent with the cognitive skill hypothesis, regardless of the nation's ideology, political history, or level of development."
The sweet spot, the study found, is homes that contain between 100-500 books (which another study found brings kids' reading performance 1.5-2.2 years above average, respectively).
Interestingly, while income definitely helps academic performance, that's true only up to a point — so even the less-well-off had kids who benefitted from having lots of books at home; in fact, the number of books was more important than income, which is great news for parents who earn less but want to give their children a strong academic foundation. Books are incredibly inexpensive these days (I regularly pay between .50 and $3 for books at used bookstores, library sales, and find plenty for free), so it's perfectly possible to assemble a library on very little cash.
Stumbling upon something new
There's something about a physical object that can't be replaced by a digital file. As Wayne points out:
"Poking through physical artifacts, as I did with those Beatles records, is archival and curatorial; it forces you to examine each object slowly, perhaps sample it and come across a serendipitous discovery. Scrolling through file names on a device, on the other hand, is what we do all day long, often mindlessly, in our quest to find whatever it is we’re already looking for as rapidly as possible."
The incredible speed with which we can find what we want in digital is a boon; so is the variety, and for that, today's kids and teens are at a huge advantage. But stumbling across things we didn't even know we wanted can be lost.
Scrolling through file names on a device, on the other hand, is what we do all day long, often mindlessly, in our quest to find whatever it is we’re already looking for as rapidly as possible.Yes, I had other great advantages like travel and nerdy science summer camps, but the constant presence of all that knowledge — I would estimate we had about 500 books at home in addition to library books — couldn't help but nudge my curiosity.
For me, a book-free space might be easier to dust, but it will never feel like home, and it's one part of life's clutter I won't trade for the digital version. Though I'm grateful to have the wealth of resources the Internet offers, it only makes sense to have it in addition to — not instead of — physical copies of our favorite things.