Although a couple steps from the real thing, a book review can be an art form of its own. A short piece in a recent Wired magazine focused on an ironic bestseller that I keep seeing on the standard lists: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. Apart from something we’ve probably all heard from our moms, I wonder why so many people buy a book telling them to get rid of things. Clive Thompson notes in his review (“Clutter Clash: How Tidying up Can Hamper Creativity”) that one of Kondo’s pieces of advice is that books should be on the list of things to discard. Disagreeing in principle with this assessment, it is an even larger argument that I would like to challenge: “studies” apparently show (I’m not sure which studies) that clutter can be “soul crushing.” Given that we have no empirical way to assess souls, I’m uncertain how to measure the number of angels crushed under my stacks of books. Who has the right to assign clutter to the ranks of venial sins—or mortal, for that matter?
The book’s subtitle, The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, may provide some vague spirituality to the topic, and I agree that entropy can get the upper hand from time to time, but soul-crushing? Some of us keep books and papers precisely because of their value in lifting the non-verifiable soul. In fact, I was just reading (ahem) about how religions (the traditional home of wisdom about souls) revolve around their books. Perhaps we should leave at least a showy Bible for the coffee table to display along with our copy of Feng Shui for Dummies. My soul feels lighter already!
When did advice for improving our souls shift from those who spend their ruminative lives asking the weighty questions to those who suggest picking up after yourself might just work as well as a life of self-denial and putting others first? And why would you buy a book that recommends you don’t keep books? My existential crisis deepens, and I haven’t even read it. I can’t shake the feeling that I spent thousands of dollars over multiple years getting an education in what turned out to be merely housekeeping. I marvel at the clutter-free environment as much as the next person. That’s one of the reasons I love art museums so much. Yes, my soul does get a boost there. If I go to the gift shop on the way out, however, I’ll likely want a book to help recapture those sublime moments. Then I will go home, where my clutter awaits, and will truly feel peace in a place where books abide in profusion.