Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

Author: Marie Kondo, London: Vermilion, 2014.

This is a bit of a departure for me – a book review I really wanted to write, but I wasn’t sure where to put it. So it’s going here. It doesn’t really mesh well with any of my blogs, yet could potentially be related to all of them. I was going to park it at Raspberry Blue, except that I haven’t posted anything there in two years and am unlikely to update it any time soon, so it felt like it would feel a bit irrelevant there. So I’m putting it here instead.

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying has been receiving a lot of attention on the internet lately. I was intrigued by her claim that her system will convert even the messiest person into a tidy person, so I got hold of the book and read it over a couple of days. These are just some of my immediate responses, both to the book itself and to specific recurring criticisms of it.

There are plenty of people out there claiming that Kondo’s book has changed their lives, but also a significant number declaring that she’s completely bonkers. I haven’t implemented her full system, so I can’t comment on its transformative potential, but I can see how it could happen. She’s clearly a bit of an obsessive, but I feel that much of her oddness is more about perspective.

In a nutshell, Kondo advocates getting rid of most of your stuff, only keeping the things which actively give you joy. This is not a new idea – for me it taps deeply into William Morris’ maxim to have nothing in your house which you don’t either believe to be beautiful or know to be useful. It’s simply a more extreme version which hinges heavily on identifying our emotional response to any given object.

The benefits of her “KonMari” method are, I think, clear: tidier storage, easier to find things, nothing that makes you go “meh” when you look at it will obviously all contribute to making people calmer and happier. But I think that in reading the book it is essential to remember that Kondo is Japanese. I got the feeling that many negative reviewers understood nothing about Japanese culture, and especially the importance of ritual, beauty and simplicity in Japanese culture and design. Without this context, I think the book might indeed come across as quite extreme and odd.

I want to address three key recurring criticisms of this book because I found for each one that a careful reading negated these objectsion:

1. She doesn’t recycle/donate/sell ANYTHING! Yes, this is true – there’s only one point in the book where she talks about giving things away and her terminology is very much about throwing things out. But there are two elements to this. First, if you’re looking at every object you own and have to decide not just whether to get rid of it but how to get rid of it, you’re going to make the process even harder than it already is. Second, Kondo’s insistence on going through your stuff by type actually allows you to pick your discard method in advance because things of any single type can generally be disposed of in the same way. Clearing clothes? Charity shop. Sorting papers? Shred and recycle.

2. OMG she wants me to rip pages out of my books???!!!! No, actually she doesn’t. She says she did this herself where she only wanted to keep 1 or 2 pages from a book (and only after she tried copying out extracts and photocopying and rejected both as taking too long [interruption of the mental tidying process]) but she also says that she discovered that she never once looked at the pages she’d torn out. The implication is that she could just as well not have bothered and just got rid of those books as she did the ones she didn’t want at all.

3. She thanks the clothes she’s throwing away – WTF?? Yes, she does. She also talks to the house and asks its help in clearing out unneeded stuff. For some this is odd. However, the ritual fosters a positive mindset to help relieve some of the stress of discarding objects, and particularly things which were once loved but now have no purpose in your life, or those never used at all. Feeling guilty or upset about throwing things away will hamper your ability to think clearly about getting rid of stuff, but the ritual of thanking these things finalises their life with you and clears your mind of the guilt, so you can move on. It’s a psychological trick.

I did feel that Kondo’s book was limited in a couple of areas, though. The digital plays no part in her method at all. Her focus is on material things, but I feel a KonMari cleanout of my computer could be a useful thing. I’d also have liked to hear her thoughts on things like replacing physical books with ebooks. She also doesn’t say anything about dealing with things which are truly necessary and useful but which spark no joy, even though I’m sure we all have some of those. Perhaps we should consider that the ‘joy’ criteria may include the joy of simply having the right tool to peel a potato, not just that the object in and of itself inspires delight.

In summary: I really enjoyed this book and I think there is much here of value – it encourages us to really think about our belongings and the place they occupy not only in our homes and working spaces, but in our lives in general.

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