It’s no secret that I love The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as well as the sequel, Spark Joy. But if you came to my house, you wouldn’t necessarily know I am a huge fan of Kondo’s method. I still have a way to go before I would call my house totally tidy. Though a central premise of the book is that you complete all your tidying in one swoop, I am not finished, and I may never finish the way Kondo intends.
And that’s okay. I’ve benefited immensely from the KonMari method, in both practical and even emotional ways.
I saw a meme the other day that talked about how someone tried to figure out what didn’t bring them joy and ended up trashing the vegetables and bills. I wish it captured the true essence of the book, but I also acknowledge that it is just a meme—designed to provide a second of humor.
My own experience compared to this meme makes me think about how we read. I’m becoming convinced that there are two kinds of readers in the world:
- The ones who carefully read every sentence and try their best to believe it.
- The selfish ones who take what they want.
I first got this concept of selfish reading in college as we studied how to teach reading. Kris Tovani presents this idea of teaching students to be selfish readers—to engage with a text by asking, “What’s in it for me?” So even a seemingly boring assigned article on the science of germs could answer the question, "How can I stay healthier?"
I loved this idea and tried to teach it to my own students. But in my own life, I’ve tended to be the more disciplined reader—the one who doesn’t skip around, who reads a book front to back, carefully considering each word. I read with a bit of naiveté, while the second group tends to read with a bit of skepticism. And I’ve come to prefer being the second type of reader.
It all started with Babywise. People recommended that book to help my baby sleep. I treasured each word as my belly started to grow because it gave me hope that we could still get some sleep—that we could control this uncontrollable force that was coming into our lives.
However, when it didn’t work—when my baby seemed impossible--I grew resentful. I’ve since decided that most of the ideology of the book is flawed. Followed to a tee, the method does not support breastfeeding and healthy infant physiology. I also don’t appreciate its use of scare tactics—like showing the crumbling marriage of the family whose baby does not sleep well or acting like poor infant sleep leads to behavioral issues like ADHD. It’s flawed science and bad research.
BUT I know and respect plenty of people who love the ideas, and what I usually find is that these people were the second type of readers. What they often took from the book is the idea that maybe they could encourage their baby to eat a bit more consistently and that maybe the eat, play, sleep system would be helpful to follow. They’re rarely die-hard, and their babies tend to be easy babies anyway, so it all works out.
The problem for me is that I read Babywise the first way. So for the first year or so of my baby’s life, I went from trying the method and feeling like a failure to just despising the book entirely.
There is a middle ground though.
We often mock something that seems radical because we know we can’t be that radical. But really the goal of many radical books is to get us to thinking more about what smaller changes we could make—what we could take from the radical methods.
I think becoming the second type of reader for non-fiction is the way to go. When I read non-fiction, especially the “How to” kind, with a too-accepting mind, I can come away feeling inspired to make radical changes, then totally defeated before finally thinking the whole book was a sham. Instead, I need to follow the circle below (see this post for more on this diagram):
I first need to say, “Could this idea be true? What if it is true? What if this helps my life?” Then I can think critically about it before coming away with a more robust understanding of whatever topic I’m researching.
My mom has always said that you get a couple of things from a good book—maybe they aren’t life-changing or maybe they are—but you generally only have a couple of takeaways. That’s why it seems dangerous to subscribe to the entire ideology of a non-fiction book, especially a self-help one.
This also allows me to be gentler with the author of the book—to accept his or her caveats and explanations and realize that she, too, is only human. It helps me get to the author's intent.
This also means that I can decide when to give up on a book. Maybe a book does force itself too literally upon me (which is why I don't recommend Babywise; there are other books that are less pushy and harmful that promote similar ideas). Maybe a book just doesn’t resonate or seems too basic or repetitive. It’s okay to stop and give it up. Sometimes I determine it’s not the right time for a particular book. Other times, I find a book that I thought it wasn’t the right time for actually gives me new motivation (which was the recent case with Spark Joy).
One thing I love about growing older is that I’m better able to put a book into my existing ideology rather than just scrapping what I know and accepting this new book. I’m able to more easily say, “Hmmm, that makes sense and fits with my experience” or “That part isn’t for me.”
If we’re going to let books influence us, I think we have to be open but cautious readers—selfish readers who open a book thinking, “What’s in it for me?” and maybe more importantly, “What’s not?”
P.S. Check out my favorite books on pregnancy and infancy.