My Life Through Books #3: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

One of the books that keeps reappearing on Audible’s Bestselling/Recommended List is Japanese author Marie Kondo’s The Magical Art of Tidying Up. I read a little about it, and as I have an Audible subscription and have paid in advance to buy books on a regular basis (more on that later), I decided to give it a try (not least because I am one of the messiest people I know).

I had not even finished the book when I was so electrified by it that I decided to buy a Kindle copy so that I could refer to her advice in written form, and couriered a physical copy to my (even more messy) father on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

This was a surprise, even to me. This book has got a bit of negative press, mainly because Kondo advocates keeping only what you love and (here’s the negative bit) throwing everything you do not want away. There was even an amusing (and terrifying) cartoon in the New Yorker that pictured someone leaving a mountainous bag in the middle of a field (no doubt it will then make its way to a landfill). The cartoon was subtitled, “The Life-changing magic of shoving everything into a huge hefty bag and leaving it for somebody else to deal with”.

This is a fair criticism of the book (landfills are terrifying prospects when you really give them some thought. Did you know, for example, that Johannesburg’s landfills are only large enough for another few years’ worth of stuff?), but the book’s advice is actually fantastic if you choose to give everything away instead.

There is also one more caveat before I begin this review in earnest: this book is written for people of my income bracket (that of a teacher who may not earn a lot, but definitely earns enough to have accumulated a lot of “stuff” that I do not use). If you get angry thinking about privilege and owning more things than you know what to do with, this is not a book for you, not least because one of her pieces of advice is: if you miss something you have given away, then buy another one. This sounds incredibly wasteful, but that being said, I have not had to buy anything to replace what I have given away.

That being said, if you are able to read this on a blog, I am pretty sure you could use her advice, and you do have stuff you will feel better without.

In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo has a belief that when we have a house full of stuff that we do not use or love, it distracts us from doing and being who we really want to be, and what we really want to do. Her solution: get rid of everything that you do not love. Start with clothes (including shoes). Move on to books, then accessories, electronics that no longer work or you no longer use, papers (she recommends throwing away photographs last, as then you will have got a good sense of what you really love and what you can do without from sorting all your other possessions).

Her process sounds rather kooky. You have to take everything off your shelves and out of your cupboard and spread it all out on the floor around you. Then, pick up one item at a time and ask yourself if it “sparks joy”. If it sparks joy, then you keep it, and if it does not, then you put it on a “give away/throw away” pile.

As you get rid of things, you thank each item for existing, for everything it has done for you, and thank the people who gave you the things to you (if they were gifts). She makes the really good point that one should not hold onto gifts because of the person who gave them. One should hold onto the care and love that went into choosing and giving the gift, because that is what is important.

So being the to-the-letter-recipe-follower that I am, I followed the whole process from beginning to end. This is what I learnt:

  1. I owned a lot more than I thought I did. I do not consider myself to be someone with an endless wardrobe, but I gave away seven (!!) large black bags filled with handbags, clothes, and trinkets: much of which I had barely worn, hadn’t ever worn, or hadn’t worn in years because they no longer fit, or no longer fit how I wanted them to. I also gave away two trunk-sized collections of books. You would think I missed parts of my wardrobe if I gave away so much. One of the other teachers who saw me bringing everything in commented that I wanted an excuse to buy a whole new wardrobe. Actually, I have had to buy nothing more than an extra pair of open-toed shoes. I already had almost everything I needed: I just didn’t know it.
  1. Being able to give things that do not bring you joy to people who will derive joy from them makes you wonder why didn’t give it all away sooner. My clothes have found homes with people for whom these items are now some of their favourites (I know this for a fact). My books all went to the public library that has just had a (probably province-wide) funding cut. Now those books will go to libraries around the province that do not have copies of the books I donated. If they do, those books will be sold to raise money for the libraries. My favourite set of children’s books (the L.M. Montgomery books) went to Bruce’s children. I have not read them for years, and may never have children of my own. My children may not like them. Even though I loved them once, it felt so much better to be able to give them to children whose eyes almost popped out of their heads with excitement when they saw them.
  1. I am also mortified by how much I had to throw away. Spices and flours that had expired were testament to how much I take being able to buy and have food (and never mind food, luxuries like spices) for granted. Three people on three different budgets live in my flat, so when I cleared out the expired medicines, the man at the Clicks Pharmacy counter’s eyebrows almost shot up past his hairline in surprise when I tipped out the bag. I thought I cared about the environment, and about not wasting, but these purchases showed me the importance of being deliberate when buying things.
  1. When I wrote my thesis, I read this life-changing article (I have written about it before) that explains that people try to create their identity through the stuff that they buy and own. To a certain extent, I think that what we own says a lot about us. When I tidied my bookshelf, I donated books I always felt I should read, but could never bring myself to open past the first page or two (if that). So when I gave away the books, I discarded a version of myself that I always felt guilty for not being. When I discarded clothes, I discarded guilt at not being the body shape or size that would suit those clothes. One of the things I have been trying to do this year is to become more the person I am, not the person I feel I should be. Sorting out my stuff was an important part of that.
  1. That strange-sounding advice to thank everything is actually an incredibly moving practice when you carry it out. It made me feel humbled by my privilege, and so grateful to have had (and to have) so much. It has made me question every buying decision (do I really love this? Do I really need this?), not least because now I can see everything that I have, and I deliberately chose every item in my house.

So oddly enough, although my house is tidier than it has ever been in my life (it has been almost six months), what was really life-changing was everything connected to the process: giving things away, and in the process, finding what really matters.


My life through books #2: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

I first discovered Alain de Botton because we had Status Anxiety, one of his (many) books on the shelf in the book shop I managed for a few months. The job was one of the most mind-numbingly dull I have ever under-taken, despite my misty-eyed sentimentality about making it a hub for African literature and philosophy. The owners were only concerned about pushing more copies of Twilight or the latest Baldacci thriller. While both Twilight and Baldacci have a valuable place in getting the public reading (I am not a purist and believe that readers should never be shamed for their choices – but that is another blog for another day), the shop I worked in was in a mall, and readers were more likely to buy a cheaper copy from the CNA or the better stocked Exclusive Books across the corridor.

Which brings me back to de Botton. The book caught my eye because I was beginning to have Status Anxiety. I was working in retail, a job which grants the status of a punching bag (practically an inanimate object that takes a lot of abuse), but this was not the root of my anxiety. It was being in a big city for the first time, and working in a mall being constantly surrounded by beautiful things that I was unable to acquire.

Before Pretoria, the most expensive store at which I could buy clothes was Woolworths (and a small-town Woolworths with hardly anything in it). Now I was being surrounded by just about anything I wanted: from multiple copies of obscure classic books I previously thought had never landed on our South African shores, a Nine West store (this was the only store that stocked my dream shoes when I was a teenager: two-tone high heels. I saw them in a magazine and pined), and Kauai (I thought only *Cape Town* had those…). Anyway, I was a little horrified by my almost physical longing for those beautiful fabrics and crisp pages in brand new books and for the legitimacy owning such objects would grant me (this was before I read Sarah Nuttall on identity creation through consumption), so “Status Anxiety” seemed as good a term as any and I was thrilled to see someone else had written about the creeping phenomena I was experiencing in my own life.

As I explained above, though, I couldn’t afford the book at the time, so I forgot about it (and its author) until I was researching philosophies of work on the internet and came across his TED talk and Maria Popova’s recommendation of his (short-ish) book on the subject: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. So I downloaded the audiobook (I am a Platinum member of Audible) and started listening.

de Botton calls The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work an essay rather than a book, and I would tend to agree with him. He slips straight into a description of a busy harbour and of all the produce that is shipped in and out. He details the messy, dirty behind-the-scenes work that results in the glossy malls and products that I was so bewitched by. He then goes on to explore different careers by going to speak to and spend time with the people involved and describing their day-to-day habits and the challenges of their work, interspersed with his own musings and realisations on the subject of work itself. He speaks to a rocket scientist, a career counsellor, a commercial fisherman (and the fish-factory’s owner), as well as an engineer and an accountant.

I was extremely keen to read the book, but I must say that the voice of the narrator was faintly patronising, which did not leave a good impression on me. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in my own head. Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal (a fascinating look into evolutionary psychology) suffered a similar fate, as the narrator has a deep voice and seems to enjoy sounding his vowels and speaking as though he were giving a lecture rather than explaining interesting subject matter.

In addition, I was put off by de Botton’s occasional mockery of his subjects. His dwelling on the subject of the nasty smells of the house of the career counsellor he visits (from the cooking of cabbage to the smell of sweat from a gym) made me feel protective of his subjects: it made me upset that he made his subjects smaller and more pathetic than they (probably) already feel.

He does have some wonderful observations about the nature of the modern world and the pressures it places on people to find some kind of ecstatic fulfilment through making a lot of money and changing something in the process, specifically in the field of entrepreneurship. The statistical improbability of this happening (2 in 2000) makes this belief one of the really dangerous ones:

…in reality, the likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not relentlessly play up the possibilities open to all those with a take on the future of the potato crisp, and so, in turn, did not cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.

When I moved to this megalopolis, I quickly realised almost everyone had some kind of entrepreneurship dream stored in their back pocket or functioning out of their garage. While I do not want mean to sneer at such efforts to achieve the sublime of being your own boss and creating employment (as Talk Radio 702 seems to espouse constantly), I do worry it makes us “equate an ordinary life with a failed one”, which makes me sad.

Seeking the sublime in work does make me think that most of us see work as a way of “anchoring the motives for [our] existence” (de Botton again). Certainly, that is why many people seek to “do what you love” through work. As Miya Tokumitsu argues in this fascinating article, when we all seek to “do what you love”, it is more problematic than it first appears:

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace*.

de Botton only touches on these issues tangentially (and, at times, naively), and his essay is more focussed on musing and posing questions than answering them. This makes his writing wonderfully open-ended, and if you are looking for musings from a very particular kind of brain (one that makes sweeping comparisons to medieval morality and painters) and many descriptions of occupations, this is the book for you. If you are looking for something more concrete than one man’s whimsical description of individual encounters (as I am when I read books about matters of life and death), I would avoid it.

*You should really read this article. It is fascinating.