The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo and translated by Cathy Hirano
2014 (originally published 2011) • 224 pages • Ten Speed Press
Once, in college, I helped my mother clean out her garage. We waited until my father was assigned a long trip at work to don our nastiest utility clothes and get to work. We put on work gloves and dug through childhood toys I’d long forgotten, badminton sets missing their parts, a complete set of vintage soccer magazines that was also almost completely decomposed. We had to ask my mother’s neighbors if we could put our trash out with theirs, because it would otherwise overwhelm her lawn. I uncovered a box that turned out to be a shrine to my father’s childhood dog, complete with photos of my father’s family with the dog and a lock of the dog’s fur. When we were done, the garage looked wonderful—and then we put the overflow of my dad’s book collection in there so we could breathe in the house.
The point is, my parents like to hold onto things. It makes sense. My father grew up in a military family and became a military man himself, which meant that moving was a near-constant. And my mother immigrated to the United States with, from what I hear, a sundress and an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques to her new name. For them, their younger lives were characterized by the constant need to compromise on their possessions—what can survive the move to new housing? A new state? The move to France? The move back? The luxury of having a more or less permanent home where they never have to worry about that must be such a relief.
Having grown up in an environment like that, it took me a while to realize that I’m not like that and that’s okay. I do get sentimental about some objects—you will pry my Agnes Scott beer stein from my cold, dead hands, and then I will zombie-punch you in the face—but I feel emotionally and almost physically oppressed by having too many things around. To combat the oppression of accumulation, I regularly clean, recycle, and just throw out. I’ve had to become ruthless in my assessment of my material possessions.
But my approach is downright maximal compared to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method, as detailed in her bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, translated from the original Japanese into English by Cathy Hirano. (I feel like translators don’t get enough credit, which was vindicated when finding Hirano’s name was a struggle on both the book’s website, its Amazon listing, and its Goodread listing.) The book itself is quite slim, but the KonMari method boils down to one action: laying a hand on everything you own in turn and asking, “Does this bring me joy?”
I’m always hesitant to review more nuts and bolts lifestyle material here, because it feels more like testing out a formula than digging into how I interacted with a text. (Or perhaps it’s just a more naked form of that—the book tells me to do something and I do it.) In this case, I did try it out. At the beginning of spring, I made a list of my spring cleaning objectives. I’ve never actually really done spring cleaning before, but the spirit moved me. I read this after I completed a lot of them, but I still hadn’t tackled my closet. So I pulled out everything and got to the laying on of hands.
And it worked for me. I discovered that there were things I had been excited about last year that no longer gave me joy—exactly the kind of thing Kondo recommends getting rid of immediately. A large part was the KonMari method being so simple that it gave me an excuse to get rid of things I’d been holding onto out of shame, guilt, or obligation. I thought I had a pretty streamlined closet, but I ended up donating three trash bags full of clothes (and shoes, which, given my shoe size, means that the three pairs I ditched took up one trash bag in and of themselves). I have more space than I used to—Kondo asks all her clients to fold their clothes and believes that solves most of their storage woes—and, more importantly, I know where everything is.
I don’t know if the KonMari method will be my end-all be-all approach to organizing. Kondo claims that this method ensures that you only have to deep clean once in your life (!) and just follow it up with tidying once in a while. As much as I’m a minimalist, Kondo’s lifestyle is beyond my pale; she details her struggles to create a commonplace book before giving up on the venture, tossing the vast majority of her book collection, and recommending that others do the same. But I think the fundamentals are sound and will be—as the book’s popularity has proven—useful to a lot of people. The mere observation that “[h]uman beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time” is a pretty clear reminder that we only really need whatever amount of things we can wrap our brains around (203). And that that amount is different for everyone.
I rented this book from the public library.