In Defense of Clutter


“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind,” Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “then what are we to think of an empty desk?” This line kept popping into my admittedly already cluttered-up mind as I made my way through Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a little green book that seems to be everywhere these days. (Just try finding a bookstore whose “Our Staff Recommends” section does not feature it prominently.) Far more than simply a guide to getting clean — not from alcohol or drugs but from clutter, which apparently has been holding many of us back more than liquor or cocaine ever could — the book means to open the door to radical transformation:

Although this approach contradicts conventional wisdom, everyone who completes my private course has successfully kept their house in order — with unexpected results. Putting their house in order positively affects all other aspects of their lives, including work and family. . . . I can say with confidence: A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming.

“Putting one’s house in order” can be translated, pretty much, as “getting rid of stuff.” True, the book also contains some instructions for dealing with what remains after the purge. But Kondo is clear that discarding, not organizing, is at the heart of what she calls the “KonMari Method.” “Putting things away,” she tells us, merely “creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.” And how to decide what to keep, and what to discard? “The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.”

It is hard to imagine a purer, simpler approach. Indeed, although the subtitle refers to this as a “Japanese art,” there is something downright American about it. In its breathless enthusiasm for purity, its faith in the authentic self and its gut-level judgments, and its zealous confidence in the rightness of its method, Kondo’s decluttering manifesto may well remind us of that most American of volumes, Thoreau’s Walden. “Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau wrote. “An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. . . . Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”

“Instead of a hundred dishes, five,” sounds so much like a line from Tidying Up that it’s a bit surprising Kondo does not quote it, or even mention Thoreau. (Then again, she might well have thought Thoreau did not go far enough. “You have one mouth and Emerson is your only friend; do you really need five dishes?” One is reminded of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who, we are told, prided himself on owning nothing but a single bowl from which he would drink, until the day he saw a child drinking from his cupped hands, at which point he felt ashamed and threw away the bowl.) But of course, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is not that kind of book — the kind, that is, that cites other books — and that fact is not at all surprising, given that Kondo does with almost all of her books what she does with nearly everything else: she throws them out.

It was in the section on books that the mild resistance I had been feeling to the KonMari Method began to solidify into something stronger, some amalgam of skepticism, amusement, and shock. “Put all your books on the floor,” she instructs us. Next:

Once you have piled your books, take them in your hand one by one and decide whether you want to keep or discard each one. The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it. Remember, I said when you touch it. Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgment.

I will admit that I had a hard time getting past that line. Reading a book clouds your judgment about whether or not it is worth having? (Apparently I’ve been going about this book reviewing thing all wrong.) This seems absurd on its face and also presents a problem with respect to books one hasn’t read yet. Are we just supposed to be able to tell, intuitively, whether a yet-to-be-read book is worth keeping around? But Kondo is aware, if not approving, of the fact that people sometimes own books they have not yet read. She writes:

The Internet has made it easy to purchase books, but as a consequence, it seems to me that people have far more unread books than they once did, ranging from three to more than forty. . . . If you missed your chance to read a particular book, even if it was recommended to you or is one you have been intending to read for ages, this is your chance to let it go. You may have wanted to read it when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.

As someone who falls quite comfortably into the “more than forty” category, I have to say that I found this hard to reconcile with my own experience of books. Among the many books I own but have not yet read is a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I sincerely doubt that the purpose of The Magic Mountain is to teach me that I don’t need to read The Magic Mountain. In fact, whatever it is that book has to teach me, I’m pretty sure I need to read it to find out. At any rate, the idea of reducing any book — any book worth having, at least — to a single point or purpose seems to misunderstand what a book is, what a book is for.

Perhaps I am overreacting to a single throwaway remark that was intended as metaphorical. (It’s often difficult, with Kondo, to tell what is meant literally and what is offered as some sort of metaphor. Does she really believe that “There is a reason why each one of your belongings came to you” or that possessions have feelings, that “Everything you own wants to be of use to you”?) But the remark seems indicative of Kondo’s way of thinking, not only about books but about a great many other things as well, which is to see them as purely functional, as possessing little if any significance in themselves. It is precisely because of this that she seems to regard the practice of disposing of things not only as a comfortable and comforting activity but as an ethically mandated one. (“Really important things are not that great in number,” she tells us. I’m not certain that I agree.) Books, as objects, mean nothing to her; they are just stuff — stuff that gets in our way, makes our living spaces oppressive, and clutters up our lives. Which strikes her as just silly and sad, because books, she advises us, are like shopping bags or shoeboxes; they are mere containers, containers for (you can probably guess what’s coming) information:

Take a moment to count the number of favorite books that you have actually read more than once. How many are there? For some it may be as few as five while for some exceptional readers it may be as many as one hundred. People who reread that many, however, are usually people in specific professions, such as scholars and authors. Very rarely will you find ordinary people like me who read so many books. Let’s face it. In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again. . . . Books are essentially paper, sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning.

I will admit: as a poet, I can’t help but find the idea that books can be reduced to the “information” they contain so deeply wrongheaded as to be downright infuriating. And it isn’t just about books, either. Part of what rubs me the wrong way about Kondo’s way of thinking about things — I mean “things,” here, in pretty much the most literal sense — is that she views them as if there were only one sort of thing. Many people’s lives are cluttered with cheap consumerist goods, stuff that seemed exciting or desirable in the store or on the website but makes little if any positive contribution to their actual quality of life. In other words, junk. Most of us could do with less, perhaps much less, of such junk.

But Kondo sees no crucial distinction between late-capitalist material disposables of this ilk, and things — books, photographs, personal letters, and so on — that are plausibly thought to bear sentimental or historical value. Just as a book, in her view, can be reduced to the information it contains — and is considered dispensable in light of the alleged fact that the information is retained inside you once the initial reading is complete — so a photograph or artifact is seen as nothing more than an object for prompting some sort of change. Indeed, not only are such objects viewed as lacking in intrinsic value, so are the very memories they provoke:

Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them. When you think about your future, is it worth keeping mementos of things that you would otherwise forget? We live in the present. No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important. . . . If you just stow these things away in a drawer or a cardboard box, before you realize it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now. . . . Let all those letters you received years ago from a girlfriend or boyfriend go. The purpose of a letter is fulfilled the moment it is received. By now, the person who wrote it has long forgotten what he or she wrote and even the letter’s very existence. . . . It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.

At first I was puzzled by these remarks, which seem to begin with Kondo attributing superhuman powers of retention to human beings (“Truly precious memories will never vanish”) and to end with a far bleaker view of these powers (“By now, the person who wrote it has long forgotten . . . “) Then I encountered Kondo’s remark that “Really important things are not that great in number,” and I realized that she was not being inconsistent at all. One can believe both that precious memories never disappear, and that few if any memories persist, if one believes that few if any memories are precious. And this seems to be Kondo’s position. At times she seems to subscribe to Stephen Dedalus’s view, in Joyce’s Ulysses, that history is a nightmare from which we must try to awake. (Too bad Dedalus didn’t realize that step one was to go through his closet.) At other times she acknowledges that some people might actually regard the past as pleasant, even “wonderful.” In either case, though, remembering simply gets in the way of living; indeed merely having memory-provoking objects around — even if they are just sitting in a closet — leeches the richness from life. I’m not making that up. On describing “a typical conversation” with her clients, regarding a hypothetical box of photographs the client was given by their grandparents, she writes: “Every time I have this conversation it makes me sad. I can’t help thinking that the lives of the deceased would have been that much richer if the space occupied by that box had been free when the person was alive.”

Some people, it must be acknowledged, have serious difficulties with clutter and hoarding. For most of us, though, a box of family photos in the closet is not an intolerable weight to bear. Connections with history more often enrich our lives than detract from its richness. Indeed one of the peculiar things about Kondo’s attitude toward photographs, letters, and other artifacts is that she never pauses to consider the possibility that some future person — one’s children, for instance — might appreciate having them around. Even if we granted the implausible assumption that my parents are able to remember every significant event and moment from their lives, and so have no need for, say, photographs of their parents and grandparents, isn’t it possible that I might be deeply interested in seeing the faces of my ancestors?

Perhaps I am feeling particularly sensitive to such questions at this particular moment in history. At some point during the last couple of months, it is reported, Islamic State militants destroyed the ancient Temple of Baalshamin in the city of Palmyra, Syria, as part of an apparent campaign to wipe out significant Syrian cultural sites. Our own country, meanwhile, is embroiled in a presidential campaign season debate over immigration whose main participants seem unaware what it means that the U.S. is, historically speaking, a nation of immigrants — if not unaware of the fact itself. And this week I returned to my job as a university instructor to face the annual wave of graduates of American high schools who more often than not regard the prospect of buying or, for that matter, reading a book with suspicion and derision, the majority of whom could not tell you that Thoreau was an American or a writer, or identify the competing sides in the U.S. Civil War, or say which century World War II took place in. These students, like many people in the world today, seem to have no problem living in the here-and-now. They could use a bit more weight to hold them back.

Perhaps this is a lot to read into one small book about tidiness, even if that book has sold a staggering number of copies and managed to become culturally ubiquitous. Perhaps, ultimately, more than Kondo’s simplistic theories of motivation (“We amass material things for the same reason that we eat — to satisfy a craving”), her unapologetic appeals to anecdotal evidence (“One of my clients cleared out a closet and shed that she had neglected for ten years. Immediately after, she had a strong bout of diarrhea after which she felt much lighter. I know it sounds like false advertising to claim that you can lose weight by tidying or that it will make your skin clearer, but it is not necessarily untrue”), her loopy New Age pronouncements (“The destiny that led us to each one of our possessions is just as precious and sacred as the destiny that connected us with the people in our lives. There is a reason why each one of your belongings came to you”), or her questionable way with analogies (“Have you ever had the experience where you thought what you were doing was a good thing but later learned that it had hurt someone? At the time, you were totally unconcerned, oblivious to the other person’s feelings. This is somewhat similar to the way many of us treat our socks”), what really bothers me about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is the absolutism with which Kondo regards clutter: as if it were an unmitigated evil, as if the empty space in one’s closet must always be more enriching than anything, whatever it might have been — even, perhaps, something disorganized, messy, or challengingly unruly — that might have been kept there. The truth, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips reminds us, is more complex and more interesting:

It is worth wondering how clutter is made, and what clutter can be used to do. . . . When we are talking about clutter we should remember, anything that stops something happening is making something else possible. That if you lose something you might find something else in the process of looking for it. Indeed, this may be the only way you can find something else. . . . The problem with not being able to bear frustration is that you never notice the paradoxical nature of your acts: to frustrate one version of the self is always to gratify, to promote, to re-find another version.

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