If you haven’t yet had your life transformed by The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, then you have not been talking to your friends or living in Seattle, or talking or living, possibly, at all. In my circles the Marie Kondo book, which came out a year ago, has replaced cleansing as the self-help regimen to not be able to shut up about. Its thesis: If you discard the stuff in your home that does not bring you joy—discarding by category, that is, all at once, in the correct order, then putting what you keep back where it belongs—you will experience renewal across your life.
I waited a year to read it, possibly waiting for friends to start hating. Nope. All gush, all the time. In fact, as I write this NBC has just announced a TV program about the book. Even the feminist blog Jezebel liked it, and Jezebel hates everything.
Which explains why I found myself in my living room, thigh deep in every book I owned—you have to go through each category of belongings in one go—holding a book at a time in my hand to feel for the “thrill of pleasure” Kondo mandates as the standard for what to keep. Not cracking the book to read for the thrill of pleasure, understand (“Reading clouds your judgment”) and not saving those I’m sure I’ll read sometime—“That ‘sometime’ never comes.”
In this way Kondo thinned her own book collection to about 30 volumes—storing them, as she advises, in a closet. She had a tough time knowing what to do with okayish books that nevertheless contained beloved passages, until she hit upon this: She would rip from each book whatever page she liked and save it in a vertical file! Soon a problem: She never looked at the file. Note that her problem was not that she was desecrating books, or freeing the author’s vision from its context, or cataloging her wisdoms in chicken nugget form.
Standing there literally trapped in my landslide of books, I ticked off everything I detested about this stupid method. I can’t read a book to determine if I’ll keep it? I have to store it out of sight? (Books are decor!) I can’t keep a book I’ve never read? Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a more meaningful indicator of who I want to be than the list of books I plan to read. Just as I was paging through Kondo’s book, thinking this bossy philistine is the first author to pitch, I came across this: “Imagine what it would feel like to have a bookshelf filled only with books that you really love. Isn’t that image spellbinding?”
And it is. God help me, it is.
This is troubling, since Kondo’s crazy is a thing of near grandeur. As a child she reorganized her siblings’ drawers and spent recess alone, tidying. When she realized that throwing out her siblings’ stuff without permission might explain the recesses alone, she turned her attention to her own living space. She began putting away every item from her purse upon every return home, tossing every joyless paper except insurance policies, leases, and guaranties.
The book is filled with these kinds of injunctions, aimed at joy as the sole standard and interlaced throughout with rhapsodies to her serene space and resultant blissful lifestyle. I can’t be the only one who wonders how children fit into this Stepford utopia. (Does this woman even own a frying pan?)
Kondo’s is a bloodless prescription for living, one affronted by the disordered priorities and rogue spontaneities and stark necessities that compose the hot mess that is real life. Here is a woman, after all, who is appalled by balled-up socks (Fold them! In thirds!) and who insists, as if from a parallel universe, that three-year-olds can maintain orderly spaces. I’m relatively tidy (never mind that my kid, who is a whole lot older than three, is apparently so unacquainted with the concept she wondered why I bought a book about tie-dyeing). But I can’t take as my mentor a woman who wants me to live in a sepia-toned spread from a Restoration Hardware catalog.
This declarative, preachy, cavalier, young woman, who in the name of simplicity would rather you replace a shirt that’s lost a button than keep buttons around so you can sew on a new one (which may look like a Pinterest vision of streamlined simplicity but which stands in fact as a breathtakingly entitled form of consumerism)—this woman, probably unwittingly, gets at something essential about this post-recession moment in America in general, and Seattle in particular.
That is: We are uncomfortable having so much stuff. Seattle, which invented both get-it-by-the-ton and get-it-today—thank you Costco, thank you Amazon—has become the company town for consumerism itself. For that reason I have to admit to a grudging, but real, gratitude for Marie Kondo’s reminder to own what you own with deep intention. Sure, she’s a whack job—offering a cure that’s about a thousand times more obsessive than the disease, neglecting to allow for joy that is itself untidy—but there’s a truth buried in her pages that she might not even have put there.
Better read her quick before she finds it and throws it out.