Do books dream of sheep?
Do books dream of sheep? fstop123/gettyimages.com

I turned on the TV, something I rarely do, and there was Marie Kondo, the organizing guru and Netflix star (Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is the name of her show), helping talk show host Jimmy Kimmel clean and organize his office. At this point, Kondo was leaning over several piles of books removed from Kimmel's bookshelf and rapidly slapping them. As she did this, she explained to Kimmel that the first thing she likes do with "mountains of books" is to wake them up. They were all fast asleep because they were not doing much on the shelf. But now that Kimmel was tidying up the space, they needed to be up and aware and, one gathers, participating in the process. Kimmel, the never-ever-not a joker, yelled at his pile of books: "Wake up!" His audience, of course, laughed. All of this seemed very silly to him and them. Books can't sleep. Books can't dream. Books are dead.

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Now, I'm well aware of Kondo's recent book controversy. Her "KonMari method," which encourages people to let go of things that do not "spark joy," faced serious opposition from book lovers. There is never anything like enough books for this class of people. A room filled with books can only become more beautiful with more books. But I do not want to take a side in this controversy. Instead, what's important to me, and constitutes the substance of this post, is that Kondo believes books are sentient. Kimmel, obviously, does not. For Kondo, mind (or consciousness, or soul) is widespread and deep. For Kimmel and his American (Abrahamic-oriented) audience, mind is only in certain things, and not in others. However, Kondo's position, which we can call panpsychism, is a legitimate view of the universe of things.


Mika Doyle of Bustle writes:

Have you gone into major organizing mode after tidying expert Marie Kondo’s show premiered on Netflix at the beginning of January? Kondo’s KonMari method of organizing seems to have revolutionized how Americans are organizing their spaces. But if you're not very familiar with the Japanese religion Shinto, there might be some aspects of Kondo’s method that seem a little strange or confusing, like greeting clients' houses or tapping items to wake them up. To help demystify some of the aspects of Kondo's tidying methods, here are a few ways Kondo has integrated Shinto into her tidying process.

One is Kondo adopted "the etiquette of worshipping at Shinto shrines" when entering a home (a sacred place). Another, and more importantly, is the belief that things are conscious (and even have personalities—nice, mean, apathetic, and so on), which, broadly speaking, is founded on the Shinto belief that "kami [some sort of spirit] exists in everything." This "spirit" comes very close to the mind or soul of panpsychism, a philosophy that has a rich but much-neglected tradition in the West.

The idea is this: Consciousness, as we know and experience it, does not end with us and other living things like cats, bees, and trees. It goes all the way down to the bottom, to the atom itself. Whatever is here (in the universe) has an inside and outside, and the inside thinks. And the reason for believing this is not complicated: Why should we assert that the mind is so special? We used to claim that the human is special, but now we accept as a hard fact that there's nothing about the human that can't be found in other branches of life. We used to believe the earth was the center of the universe, but we now well know it is not. Indeed, it is not only not the center of the universe, but is one of billions of planets in galaxy after galaxy. If life did not come out of nowhere, why should the mind? If life is composed of the same materials as rocks, clouds, and lakes, why should this not be true of thoughts also? Certainly there are early morning joggers and cyclists in this city who have come across a Lake Washington that was really dreaming of being an ocean.

The doctrine of panpsychism has proponents who argue that the mind in our heads is exactly the same as that found in a book. And there are those who argue that mentality comes in degrees. It exists, they argue, in a book or handful of dust, but its intensity of mind is not that of, say, a peahen. You will find panpsychism in the works of the greatest American philosopher, William James. The same goes for the works of the American physicist David Bohm and the British philosophers Josiah Royce and Alfred North Whitehead. Even the biochemist Nick Lane mentions it.

Though I recognize the justifications for this philosophy, I'm admittedly conservative. I feel extreme panpsychism ignores or wrongfully rejects the possibility of new things emerging from new and unexpected combinations and relationships of matter. The inspiration for my position is the 17th-century rationalist Baruch Spinoza. He stated in his book Ethics that no one knows what a body can do. It's a beautiful passage in a generally austere work: "...no one has hitherto laid down the limits to the powers of the body, that is, no one has as yet been taught by experience what the body can accomplish solely by the laws of nature."

I feel this is true all the way down to the building blocks of all there is. We do not know exactly all that matter can do. Mind does not have to appear in the universe of things. It can remain trapped and undiscovered in matter. This is a real possibility. And, in the same way, there are possibilities in matter that are yet to be opened and make an appearance in reality. The philosophy I follow leaves room for the creativity of the living and non-living.

But this does not mean I dismiss Kondo's panpsychism. In fact, it makes much more sense than Kimmel's common concept that books are just dead. Never score a cheap laugh from someone who is trying to wake up your books.