Oct 29

Book Review: Goodbye Things

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese MinimalismGoodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki

I would have rated this book as excellent if it had been able to convince a hoarder to embrace the tenets of minimalism. I would have rated it as acceptable if it had merely told me what I know about minimalism and not really cemented it. But I was actively looking for books about the subject and actively interested in it and it managed to turn me off of the very movement it espouses.

I got the audiobook version, and my first issue was with the choice of narrator. He has a rough, distinctly American accent which seemed better suited to narrating a hard-boiled detective novel about a jaded cop who is on the worst case he’d ever seen. His voice did not suit this material, in my opinion. He also does “accents” for the people he’s quoting. Einstein is a weird almost-French accent, Gandhi is a weird almost-French accent and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a weird almost-French accent. It got less jarring over time, but the narrators voice never stopped distracting me.

Sasaki talks about how he used to be poor and sad, how he’d come home to his cluttered apartment full of books and cameras and drink or watch TV all evening. Now he has an apartment tinier than an IKEA idea house and his life is sunshine and roses. He’s happier, he’s lost weight, he sleeps better, he cleans happily every day, he’s got more money and he’s all-in-all a better person. All of this he accredits to getting rid of his belongings. You have more time when you’re not caring for your things, he says. Minimalists are naturally thin, so you’ll lose weight. You have more energy to pay attention to your friends when you don’t have belongings. You are more grateful when you have less. You sleep better without the energy of clutter crowding your habitat. Inconvenience can actually make your life better, once you get used to it.

Some of what he says is true. I found when I got rid of a lot of my excess belongings that I had more mental energy. I think people (especially people who do not outsource this to a wife or mother) have to keep a mental map/inventory in their head of what they own. That takes energy. Not to mention the time spent looking for things you can’t find. So getting rid of things can free up some of the clutter in your mind. It does make a place easier to clean, to be sure. Also, if you have fewer things your attention is not as diluted. If you only own ten movies, it’s easier to figure out what you want to watch. I found that when I got rid of the hobby materials for hobbies I wasn’t as interested in, I had more time for the hobbies I enjoyed more. I know all this from personal experience and I went into this book hoping for the kind of “ah ha!” spiritual advice that Marie Kondo’s book gave me with its pithy advice on how to fold things so they stand on end and that a thing comes into your life to serve one purpose and when its purpose has been served, it’s okay to say goodbye.

Sasaki does not offer good advice. Plenty of advice, but not good advice. He reminds me of this horrible diet book I read called Skinny Bitch something or other, where the vulgar vegan authors basically just tried to shame the readers and disgust them by talking about how everything they eat (except fruit) is disgusting and they should just stop. Sasaki is like that with things. Why do you have a full sized towel when you can dry yourself with a small one? Why do you own a tea set when you can go out and have tea at a restaurant? Get rid of things, and then get rid of more things. That’s the summation of his advice. Oh, and “get rid of the nest before you get rid of the pest” meaning, get rid of the storage items before you get rid of the things inside. His theory is that people naturally dislike clutter and will get rid of things faster if there’s nowhere to put it. I think that opinions may vary on this subject.

Here’s the elephant that Sasaki never really touches on: If he hadn’t gotten rid of a single thing, his life would have changed just as dramatically just by not drinking himself to sleep every night. I mean, that’s a pretty huge thing to give up. Drinking yourself to sleep every night will sap your energy, make you weigh more, cost a lot of money, and take away your attention for hobbies you enjoy and for your friends. We’re supposed to pretend that his drinking had nothing to do with his unhappiness? Hello! Alcohol is a depressant! But I suppose “I used to drink myself to sleep every night in front of the TV, but now I don’t drink and I don’t watch TV and my life is better” isn’t as interesting as “I live like a monk.”

And it does sound like he lives like a monk. The minimalism is this kind of abnegation. He doesn’t just inconvenience himself (a full-sized towel is hardly a sybaritic indulgence) he doesn’t even allow himself color or pattern. Choose items that aren’t bright colored, he enjoins his readers. So I picture his house as full of muted grays and browns. How dull, literally. I wonder if he also got rid of spices? He does mention striving to enjoy food even if it is bland and tasteless, because it is just nourishment. Though, the book The Dorito Effect points out that food which is more delicious (unless it’s chemically flavored with false tastes) is actually better for you than bland food. Humans seek out tasty food because we’re trying to self-nourish appropriately. So by eating bland food, you’re actually not doing yourself any favors.

Some of his advice is either just plain not true or not true for people who don’t live in Japan. For example, he said that if you are a minimalist, you can live cheaper. Um, sort of. He got rid of his hot pot set and said that he would just use the city as his house and meet people elsewhere. Are you never going to treat your friends? Or are you going to pay for everyone to eat at a restaurant? It’s a lot cheaper to host people at your house than to pay for everyone to go to a restaurant. Yes, you can drink coffee at the shop on the corner every day instead of owning a coffee pot, but really, does that make economic sense? He also says that he’s in a 120 square foot apartment (I think the square meters/tatami mats conversion is confusing) and that it’s only like six hundred bucks a month in Tokyo. It doesn’t work that way in America. There are laws restricting how small an apartment can be, and an apartment that’s half the size of another doesn’t necessarily cost half as much.

He also says that auction services are a great way to sell your things and that some services will pick up your things and sell them for you. I don’t think these services exist in the U.S. except maybe estate sales companies that will get rid of a house full of stuff. Some ebay-stores will sell your things, but they are pretty rare, and I don’t think they’ll pick up. You can sell your things online through OfferUp or Craigslist, but it is certainly not “a good way to say goodbye to your things” it is a way to realize that you hate people, all the cheap bastard hagglers out there who waste your time and don’t show up and don’t deserve to own something as nice as that thing you’re getting rid of that they’re not even willing to pay 1/10th of the value for. Sometimes trying to sell something on Craigslist just makes me want to keep it that much more. (But if you want to learn to hate people, it’s the tops!)

Maybe “get rid of everything you don’t need” makes sense if you’re a thirty-something single guy with no children and no responsibilities living in the city. But for people who have children, getting rid of the children’s things can really do serious long-term damage to your relationship with them. If you’re in the country, you can’t always go and fetch a new one if you need it. “Hello Amazon? Can you deliver a snow shovel today? I can’t get out of my driveway.” And if you have more space than money, it makes sense to stock up on all your canned produce that you got on sale and to keep those extra bags of whatever you might need in the future.

Sasaki talks about how he doesn’t think about the future, as if “be in the present now” is an ideal state. Humans are the only creatures that can think about the future, he says. This is the kind of phrase that drives me batty. It’s totally false, presented as some kind of sacred truth. Animals can totally think about the future. Dogs will sit by the door because they know their owner is coming home soon. And why do geese fly south? Duh, because they know winter is coming. I think that not worrying about the future can be beneficial, and being in the present can be beneficial. You need to be able to be in the present in order to enjoy life, but you need to think about the future to prepare for it. Bragging about how you don’t think about the future just makes you seem like an idiot. You’re the guy who didn’t bring a raincoat on the canoe trip. You have no savings account and no retirement plan. You’re the person who didn’t bring anything to the potluck, because you don’t own a casserole pan and you didn’t buy ingredients and you forgot the date because it wasn’t written down on the calendar you don’t own.

But that’s not fair, because probably it was written down on an iPhone calendar. Sasaki really, really, really has a crush on Steve Jobs. He quotes him seven or eight times, which is a lot, because the audio book was only 3 1/2 hours (a typical book is 8-10 hours). The one good piece of advice I got out of this was “develop a personal style” because Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day. It’s probably easier to do if you’re a rich and powerful man than if you’re a woman, but I would love to wear the same thing every day. (I’m going to try it and see if I can handle the blowback.) Sasaki asks “why own clothing that isn’t comfortable?” like someone who has never worn pantyhose because there was work and social pressure to dress up.

I think that minimalism has value. Knowing why you own things can be very valuable insight. Getting rid of things that have emotional baggage can be spiritually freeing. Owning so many things that you can’t comfortably live in your dwelling is something to be avoided. But this book is not a good guide to decluttering. It actually acts like a deterrent. It’s not the story about a guy who found out how to live on less, it’s the story about a sad, depressed man who gave up alcohol in favor of a more socially acceptable way of denying himself pleasure. He’s like a cutter who took up triathalons instead, and pretends that his lack of blood-loss is because running is so good for him. No, he just stopped one form of self-flagellation for another. He was unhappy, he got rid of everything he owned and eschews beautiful items and color and flavor and now he’s happy. I don’t think that’s the whole story, alcohol aside. The author became the equivalent of a secular monk, and there’s way more going on here than just throwing out those coffee cups you don’t like. I might have enjoyed the book a lot more if he had a self-deprecating air, like “I know I’m just swapping one obsession for another, ha ha, I’m kind of a mess” aka David Sedaris style, but even when he says “don’t judge people for having more stuff than you” he still comes off as preachy and judgmental. You can’t write a whole book about how stuff is bad and you should just throw away your stuff without coming across as privileged and judgmental.

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