Sep 15

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganisingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising by Marie Kondo

My friend told me about this a year or two ago, calling it “a hoot” and recently it’s been coming up more and more in the media, so I put this popular book on hold at the library. I just finished listening to the audiobook.
In the beginning of the book, Kondo makes a few assumptions about the reader. One, that you have your own space. Two, that the things in your house belong to you. Three, that you don’t like clutter and want to eliminate it forever. I am fortunate enough to have my own space, but most of the clutter that bothers me belongs to my children, and I am not one of those freaks who thinks that getting rid of the possessions of people I love is in keeping with the kind and mutually respectful relationship I want to have with my children.

I once made myself a tee shirt with the sentence: “Every day I battle against the clutter, and every day the clutter comes one step closer to its final, crushing victory,” so you might estimate that I’d respond to her message. It starts out rather hyperbolic, about how she’s never had a client relapse, and how they all lose weight and have amazing things happen to them after they declutter their homes. I just want to spend less time tidying, and I want to stop feeling like I have more things than I can care for.

Kondo has a very structured outline for how you must declutter. She has you go in order: clothes, books and papers, miscellany, and sentimental items. She has you take every single item from everywhere in the house and do all of them at once. For example, if you have clothes in the downstairs closet, bring them to your bedroom closet, and if you have sweaters in a cedar chest, those have to come out too, so that you’re looking at all of your clothes all at once. That way you get a good picture of how many clothes you actually own. Ditto for the rest, by category. She also says you should do it all in one session. I think that’s a little optimistic. I could spend an entire day just cleaning one room of my house, and be too exhausted to continue.

One of the problems with this is her assumption that you will not want to have more than you need. For some people, having more than you need feels comforting, not excessive. For example, I personally can’t stand to look at empty bookshelves. I have bought yards of secondhand books at the library just because I can’t stand bookshelves without books on them. Do they “spark joy?” No, they don’t. She says you should get rid of books you haven’t read yet, because you’re not ever going to get around to reading them, but some of the books I read this month I chose because I have a shelf of ‘books I haven’t read’ from the library. I have the glorious problem of too many bookshelves in my house. Some of the problem of owning more than you need is directly applicable to having the space to house it.

One of the other assumptions is that the reader likes to go shopping, and is capable of buying things if they run out. This is not always true. She says when you think about how much your house costs, you’re not saving money if you’re storing that empty cardboard box or whatever.

But sometimes, being frugal means saving things that will be very useful at some point in the near future. This is especially true for creative people who like to make things. When I see big, bright, empty livign rooms with white furniture, white walls, and maybe a single white tulip in a vase, I immediately think, “What do the owners DO at home?” You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen the stock photos of the attractive person and the clean and simple laptop, maybe with a single cup of coffee, peering at the screen pondering auto refinancing or whether or not home insurance is the right choice for them. What do they do in that big, empty room? One of the things I found as an artist that by allowing yourself to leave the art lying around isntead of insisting on tidying up every day, you actually get more done, because setting up and cleaning up afterwards are time costs that take away from actual creation. If it takes 5 minutes to set up and 5 minutes to clean, then 10 free minutes means “don’t bother.” Her idea of not leaving shampoo and soap in the bathroom seems ridiculous too. I use five things every time I shower, and I only have two hands. Maybe it’s because I live in a dry climate rather than a rainy one, but my shampoo never seems slimy.

But there are a lot of ideas in this book, some of which are uniquely Japanese. For example “everyone in the house has their own designated storage area” makes more sense if I pictured a typical Japanese house or apartment with the closets designed to hold futons. I had an apartment in Japan, and yes, putting a small chest of drawers into one would totally make sense. Here, there’s storage closets and shelves and cabinets. I probably have thirty different storage “places” in my house, ranging from a tiny cabinet in the kitchen to a two hundred square foot attic space. None are really large enough for furniture (attic door is tricky to navigate).

Kondo also has a very Shinto spirituality, which felt exotic and strange to me, even though I have some familiarity with Japanese culture. She says thank you to her clothes for protecting her. She thinks that by treating your belongings with respect, they will last longer, and that when you do discard them, their spirit (the object wants to be useful to you) will come back to you in another way. When describing household shrines, she suggests that you discard old charms, as they have an expiration date of only one year. This killed me. I don’t know why the idea of lucky charms from a shrine seems fine to me, but the idea that they are perishable seems hilarious. (I have several, they have all passed their sell-by dates by quite a lot)

However, as quirky as it is, the idea of thanking your belongings for a job well done before you put them away and/or discarding them actually does counterbalance one of the main underpinning issues that causes clutter in the first place: guilt. If I throw out the reams of art my kid made in preschool, she will think I don’t appreciate her efforts. If I throw out the letters my friend sent me, I’m disrespecting her friendship. The worst is the other-people’s sentiments category. “Do you want this valuable (but hard to sell) item that doesn’t suit your lifestyle, which was the beloved possession of a dead relative? Because if you don’t, we’re going to THROW IT AWAY! DUN DUN DUNNNN” Those are the worst. Kondo helps navigate these minefields by reminding you that every object is meant to serve a purpose, and at some point, its purpose has been served. That get well soon card from your cousin already wished you to get well. It’s done its job. She also says that the objects will be happier if they are used and/or discarded than if they are neglected in a drawer somewhere. I’m a big fan of getting rid of stuff. I joke that I never buy anything, I just rent it from Goodwill. I’ve been giving them a box a week for a year and yet I never seem to run out of things I don’t need.

I admit that before this book I never once considered the emotional needs of my socks, and I’ve never freaked out that someone folded their socks wrong (like Kondo has) but Kondo did manage to convince me of how cool it is to fold all your clothes (even socks) so that they fit vertically in the drawer. I thought it was impossible until I tried it. Now they look like displays in a chic boutique, and I can see at a glance both what I have, and the depressingly narrow color scheme I tend to use. We’ll see if I continue with the effort it takes to fold them just-so, or if the next time laundry day comes around, I decide it’s not worth the fuss.

Kondo claims all sorts of things will happen to you when you pare down to the essentials. One of these bold claims is that you will never rebound. I find this hard to believe. I think that sometimes clutter is like overeating, in that you take in too many things because you are trying to solve a problem or alleviate a concern. I also suspect that if you live with a hoarder-type, their crap would just overspill into the communal space. I won’t know if I’ll rebound or not, because I don’t intend to do the full program (there’s no book I hate worse than empty shelf space) but I’m definitely going to use her Shinto gratitude techniques for getting rid of things I don’t need.

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