Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Written by Mimosa
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Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

Reviewed by Cathy Douglas

Half of a book is philosophy and technique, half a truly odd little autobiography. Marie Kondo spent her childhood tidying. It truly fascinated her. She would do things like go into her older brother’s room and throw away a bunch of his stuff. Yikes! Somehow she survived to adulthood.

I was pleasantly surprised to find there was no big attempt to Americanize the US version of the book, and that the tidying methods embody a Shinto worldview: the whole world is animated with spirits, and one should treat those spirits with respect. For example, a purse “wants” to serve us, and so is disappointed if it sits year after year at the bottom of a drawer. Or if we use this purse, it will become tired by the end of the day; we should thank it, unpack it and allow it to rest.

Some people think this is crazy. But is it crazy to talk to cats? Cats have no idea what we’re talking about, or what’s the point of all the gaba gaba gaba that comes out of our mouths. But we talk to them anyway, as a way to show our love. It’s comforting on both sides.

Stretching this further: Say you’ve got a CD you bought ten years ago which you loved, and which quickly became your favorite. For a while it was the soundtrack of your life. Even now, a decade later, you have all the songs on your iPod and listen to one occasionally. But you don’t remember the last time you played to the physical CD, or even listened the album the whole way through. The CD sits on the shelf collecting dust, but you can’t bring yourself to get rid of something you loved that much. Kondo’s solution is to express your love and gratitude to the CD, then to let it go, because keeping such items is a symptom of our desire to live in the past. I think that makes a certain amount of sense.

I remember how much it hurt to throw away my last pair of Adidas Grete Waitz racing flats. I’ve got oddly shaped feet, and those were the only shoes that have ever fit them perfectly. Those shoes were also light and fast; I ran most of my best races in them, and a lot of speed workouts with my team (the mighty Impalas). But the company stopped making them, and pretty soon I was down to one pair that was too worn out to use for anything but gardening. Then they got too holey even for that. It felt so mean, so disrespectful, so unloving just to toss them in the trash. I wish I had thought to express my gratitude. And yes, I really think that would make a difference. If nothing else, it would make a better memory.

Getting back to emptying out your bag at the end of the day: My first reaction was, “Seriously? Maybe I’m going to clean up my house this way she outlines, but no way I’m emptying out my pack every day and put the same stuff back in the next day.” But a few days later, I’ve noticed how before I go out of the house, I have to check and double check to make sure I have keys, pens, hair ties, etc. etc. etc. And I don’t always need exactly the same items; some days I need the bike lock and lights, other days I need my bus ticket and Kindle. Maybe it actually would be easier and make me feel more secure to keep all my “backpack stuff” in one place, and load in only what I need before I leave the house. And hey, if it helps my hard-working backpack relax‚Ķ

Anyway, we’ll see how well this works. My tidying binge starts tomorrow. The KonMari method will require a little Americanizing and other personalizing to work for me. For one thing, I don’t believe the word “basement” appears anywhere in the book. Maybe Japanese houses don’t have basements? My house’s unfinished basement is the place where things I’m not using go so I don’t have to look at them. Ugh — it’ll take some work. She doesn’t have anything to say about outdoor spaces like my shed, and surprisingly doesn’t go into much detail about kitchens. I also need to spend some time tidying digital devices, and my “home office” (which is really just a corner of the living room). While the book doesn’t spell out how to do these things, it shouldn’t be too hard to generalize the method to make it work across various spaces.

Illustration from Spark Joy. No adorable rabbits in this one, unfortunately.

Illustration from Spark Joy. No adorable rabbits in this one, unfortunately.

(Note: Recently Kondo has come out with a second book, Spark Joy, which goes into more detail about organizing the types of spaces mentioned above. It also has helpful illustrations of some of her organizing methods, demonstrated by cute cartoon bunnies! You just can’t go wrong with something like that, right?)

I’m also curious how to implement this method with items like my boot socks. They’re pretty well worn out, and handling them certainly gives me no “frisson of joy.” By KonMari standards that should put them in the “throw out” pile. But I live in Wisconsin, and it’s winter, and I need a pair of boot socks. It would be nice to buy a new pair, but there are a whole lot of things like that I need, and I don’t have a lot of money. Those threadbare socks will have to last through the season.

Still, after reading this book, I feel ready to take such issues more seriously. Another level of organization might be to make a list of little things I need, like boot socks, and write a budget that gives me a small allowance to buy them one at a time.

And maybe it wouldn’t hurt to listen to my boot socks’ story. Just because I live in America doesn’t mean my world’s not full of spirits. People who see things that way are likely to take better care of their environment, both in the home and outside it.

When Americans criticize ourselves, often the first thing we condemn is our materialism. So do we really need to show more love for consumer goods? Simplifying, getting rid of excess stuff — that’s all very well, but doesn’t it kind of negate this if we start fetishizing the stuff we have?

I don’t think so. Inanimate objects do come with strings attached — strings of human feeling that attach them to us and tug us in certain directions.

Just outside my window there’s a bike lying in my neighbor’s backyard. A kid’s bike that’s been there for months, and is now stuck in ice. Today there’s more snow falling, and now there’s only a bit of the front wheel sticking up. It makes me sad every time I look at it.

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