The cover art for Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—3 million copies sold and counting—is strikingly low-key for self-help: A wash of pale blue watercolor resembling a late-spring sky forms the background, and the title is set all in gentle, lowercase type. Before I read the book, this design led me to group it absent-mindedly with a rash of titles from the 1980s about the “healing” of grievous trauma, from Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More to Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life. It’s a palette that whispers: “We know you’re hanging by a thread, that your psyche is so raw that even capital letters scrape it, but between these pastel covers, you can find the hope and strength to go on.”
All of which seemed comical, given that Life-Changing Magic (or life-changing magic) is a book about how you really just need to throw away the crap piling up around your house. Kondo, a professional organizer, has a Manichean attitude toward personal possessions, swinging unpredictably from the draconian to the reverent. She has ruthlessly winnowed her own personal library down to about 30 books and has also found it “heartrending” to discover a plastic bag filled with a client’s spare change stash because the coins were “stripped of their dignity as money.” This is a woman who regards the proper folding of clothes as a sort of spiritual practice and laments the paucity of “home economics graduates who have formally studied ‘tidying.’ ” Her pursuit of minimalist-style housekeeping has the messianic, my-way-or-perdition tone of a cult leader, and legions of self-described Konverts share their sagas of purging their closets and shelves online.
I guess I can afford to smirk at all this, given that clutter is not one of my afflictions — although I do eagerly await the publication of The Life-Changing Magic of Getting Yourself to Dust Regularly, or at Least Occasionally, a program that merits capital letters if there ever was one. I love throwing stuff out, to the degree that on one or two occasions I have actually regretted doing so because an item I discarded a few months ago would have come in handy, an event that, according to most decluttering experts, is as rare as a unicorn. And when I do keep something around that Kondo insists is useless, such as a jar of spare buttons, it’s because I’ve actually used it, and more than once. (I recently repurposed an old coat button to replace the knob on the pull string for some venetian blinds, though your domestic MacGyverism may vary.)
However, the last thing I expected to strike on reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up and Kondo’s new follow-up, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, was a deep wellspring of decidedly nonpastel emotion. Although the author doesn’t seem to realize it herself, her campaign is a nonstop assault on the most basic form of human denial, the one that prefers to ignore our implacable limitations. Look at your bookshelves, Kondo decrees in her most emotionally fraught chapter, and accept that all those books you haven’t read yet are books you will never read. At 30, perhaps Kondo doesn’t quite realize the implications of this statement, but whoever designed her book jacket surely did. It doesn’t resemble a 1980s self-help manual after all—how could I have been so blind? What it looks like is a greeting card, the kind that gets displayed under the euphemism “Sympathy” or “Condolences.” Here, though, the grieving and the grieved-for are one and the same, and the loss is yet to come. Or, rather, ongoing. Kondo’s books constitute an insistent if oblique consideration of our own mortality, and the soon-to-be-departed, dear reader, is you. Death: the supreme life-changing magic.
Granted, this could just be me, the woman who, upon watching the opening scenes of the music video for Adele’s “Hello,” showing the singer opening up a shuttered cottage, instantly assumed she was there to clean out a dead parent’s home. If any activity is designed to underline the pitiful superfluity of our stuff, it’s that one. Perhaps Kondo is right: Things can be heartrending, although not necessarily for the reasons she offers, which have to do with her belief that material objects are semisentient. Kondo talks to her belongings, thanking them for their service, and in her new book, to name just one example, she casually remarks that bras “have exceptional pride and emit a distinctive aura.” Kondo’s prescription for the aspiring declutterer is at once oversensitive and severe: Hold every single possession in your hands before deciding its fate, and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If not, then into the jumbo-sized trash bag it goes!
The joy-sparking question is Kondo’s trademark, and a curious one since The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a fairly joyless book. Underlying it all is Kondo’s own story, her lonely childhood in Japan as a neglected middle sibling who “spent most of my time at home on my own” and became obsessed with home and lifestyle magazines at the age of 5. School doesn’t seem to have brought more companionship, although she did win the coveted (by her, at least) task of re-ordering the classroom: “From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child.” As a result, in a final chapter that confesses to a lifelong difficulty with trusting others, she writes, “it was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends,” which has to be one of the saddest sentences I have ever read.
Spark Joy, the new book, shrewdly offers a cuddlier, more practical take on Kondo’s “KonMari" program. The author admits to goofy idiosyncrasies, a classic feminine gambit for endearing oneself to others, and supplies detailed tips. The latter have solid value, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for her clothes-folding method, which I have adopted with enthusiasm. But when Kondo describes discarding her screwdriver because it conveyed insufficient joy and then breaking a favorite ruler when she enlisted it to remove a screw, you have to wonder if so many readers should be following the lead of an organizational expert with so little common sense. A force more compulsive than joy is at work here.
As Slate’s June Thomas observed last year in a DoubleX podcast, the intensity and austerity of Kondo’s practice and recommendations suggest an “anorexia of things” (although God only knows we should also not underestimate the pathology of its opposite, hoarding). To discard the stuff we’ve acquired is to murder the version of ourselves we envision using it. One of Kondo’s clients avidly participated in a Japanese vogue for taking early-morning classes and seminars before work and had neatly saved all the printed materials handed out by her instructors. Kondo complains that this makes her home look like an office, which is no doubt a fair cop, but then goes on to explain that people who keep such things are kidding themselves that they’ll ever need to review them. “What they learned at the seminars did not stick. … If the content is not put into practice, such courses are meaningless.” Ouch.
It’s not just your imagined future that needs paring down. Kondo also advises a wincingly strict economy in the saving of photos, diaries, letters and other mementos. “Sometimes people keep a mass of photos in a big box with the intention of enjoying them someday in their old age,” she writes. “I can tell you now that ‘someday’ never comes.” You don’t need most of this because “[i]t is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.” I used to believe this myself, but I was wrong. Live long enough, and you start losing treasured memories. The photo or letter that can bring some of it back is precious indeed. But not to Kondo—though perhaps she would prefer not to recall her solitary past anyway.
The things you learned didn’t stick and won’t ever be utilized; the books you think you’ll read one day will remain uncracked; that box of photos and letters will become nothing more than detritus for those who must clean up after you—so why not face facts and just get rid of it all now? When Kondo quizzes one of her clients on her ideal lifestyle, the woman describes coming home to a space “as tidy as a hotel suite” where she would bathe with aromatherapy oils, drink herbal tea, and listen to classical piano music. It is the featureless existence of a model in an advertisement, with a weird eternal quality, like limbo. Here is a woman who dreams of letting go of everything pertaining to the past or future, a behavior observable in many terminally ill people as they prepare emotionally for their own departure. Famously, Kondo always wears white while on the job, purportedly for its association with “cleanliness,” but it is also a color that many Asian cultures associate with death.
This is the secret language of clutter that Kondo all but ignores. The piles of stuff we might need someday are an argument that we will always be around to need them. The plans to revisit those photos and take up again that course of study, the books we fully intend to finally read assure us that there will be enough time to do so. Mementos presume the ongoing existence of a rememberer. Yes, all of that is a lie, but it’s a necessary lie. And all the joy in the world can’t really compensate for having to let that go.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Ten Speed Press.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.