The life-changing magic of tidying: a review

Corner by corner : review of Marie KondoI am ashamed to say that when Oli told me he’d bought a book ‘about tidying’ my first thoughts were not entirely charitable.

“A BOOK!” I huffed. First to him, then to myself, then to a series of sympathetic friends. “Our house needs a tidy, and he buys a book. A BOOK! To tell him how to put things away!” I scowled. “Why not just TIDY things UP?” I groused. “Why do we need a BOOK to tell us that?”

“Why don’t you read it?” he said, in an irritatingly reasonable way. “I really think you’ll like it.”
“I will NOT read it. ” I said. “I will NOT read this terrible book, this awful excuse of a – well – I – won’t – I mean… I suppose I could just read the first chapter.” Pause. “Huh. Well that wasn’t too bad. I suppose there’s no harm in reading on.”
And on. And on.

I hold my hands up and confess that I was wrong about this book. I went from cynical disbelief to really enjoying it. Let me tell you why.

Firstly, I think the title is a misnomer. It’s not really about tidying at all. Her premise is that if you follow her method, you tidy up once and once only, and then you never have to tidy again. Of course, she isn’t promising an army of elves that will come into your house and pick up your possessions. What this book really promises is that if you ruthlessly declutter, and then having decluttered, ensure that everything you own has a place, thereafter tidying becomes not a thing of the past, but instead much easier. So the title is misleading. But I can understand that if the book were entitled, ‘the life changing magic of absolutely ruthlessly decluttering, to the point where you own substantially fewer things, so that your life is clearer and easier to manage’ then it would be perhaps a little less snappy.

But I do think this is an important point. The book is about reducing the amount that you own. About throwing away probably the majority of your possessions. This is startling, to say the least. Particularly startling if you are, just speaking hypothetically here, a shopping-loving, materialistic, new-thing-coveting hoarder, with three small children. Keep only those items which ‘spark joy’ says Marie Kondo. Sparking joy. Joy. That is a high threshold indeed. What she does in essence is to take the William Morris principle, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ and she raises the bar. She says that joy is a physical reaction, and that to experience it you need to hold the item physically in your hand whilst deciding whether to keep it or not.

She also stipulates that when you declutter, you do so by type of possession, not by area of the house. I am sure I’m not the only person who has tackled one place, ‘the cupboard’, ‘the desk’, only to find it becoming over-run soon afterwards. Our friend Marie says you need to sort by category, and she is very strict about the order. Starting with clothes, moving on to books, and leaving sentimental items until last as they are the hardest to get rid of. This is quite a departure from most other approaches to sorting out your house, and is arresting in its simplicity. Put everything you own from the category all together, physically in one pile. Then go through it, holding up each item and noting whether it ‘sparks joy’.

The idea of joy is perhaps inherently mildly hilarious to a British person. But once I’d started going through my clothes, I noticed that many of them, when I held them, made me feel kind of, “Meh.” I looked at various tops and thought, “Well. I don’t hate it. And it’s still in good condition.” Whereas other items of clothing, when I held them, gave me a physical feeling of pleasure, “I can’t WAIT to wear this again.” Hmmmm.

I can’t write an honest review of this book without pointing out that Marie Kondo is, at some level, entirely but very sweetly bonkers. This may be a cultural mis-match thing. This is a distinctly Japanese book, with tiny urban apartments, closets, and a ritualistic approach to folding that will leave some British readers a bit bemused. But beyond that, there is the almost spiritual way that Kondo views her relationship with her possessions. To put it bluntly, she thanks them. She thanks her coat at the end of the day for keeping her warm. She thanks possessions that she gives away, for the work they’ve done, and wishes them well for the future. No giggling at the back, please.

There are also elements of it which are too brutally hardcore, for my tastes at least. She is radical about books, suggesting that one should read and discard. She describes going through a period of ripping out the pages she liked from books, which made this bibliophile shudder. Her approach to binning unwanted items, rather than hanging onto them ‘just in case’ or ready to give away, is startlingly uneconomical and unenvironmental. I will always be a hoarder, and I fear that only a housefire or something similar would ever reduce me down to the scale of possessions that she describes. If you have children, or if you have several hobbies, then I do think fundamentally you need more stuff than she advocates. Her only reference to how one can use the ‘Konmari’ method with children is a touchingly straightforward anecdote about a client of hers who decluttered, then found that her three year old began tidying up, spontaneously, all by herself. To which I can only say HA HA HA HA HA.

But all that notwithstanding, there is something about this book. Something rather brilliant. Something addictive about the way that Kondo describes getting rid of things. I have been clearing out my possessions since reading it, and I have experienced some of the emotional reactions she describes: feeling genuinely freer and less guilty after discarding something I never wore, or would never read, or was never going to use. Begone! My heart lifted as I threw it into the charity shop box. Reading her book makes you want to own less, makes you yearn for clear surfaces, and uncluttered rooms, and for space, both mental and physical, to breathe and to move about.

I keep recommending this book to people. So I thought I should write a proper review and be done with it. I am an unabashed, but slightly surprised fan of the life changing magic of tidying. (Oli – you were right. On this one, very rare occasion. Don’t expect it to happen again….)

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