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Inside Literature's Latest Cult Success Story – A Book on Tidying Up

Reading Marie Kondo's word-of-mouth hit <i> The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up </i> had me spending my evenings lying on the floor, thanking my sweaters individually for keeping me warm.

by Monica Heisey
11 February 2015, 2:30pm

Image via Flickr user Kelly

It is 11pm on a Tuesday night and I'm on my bedroom floor fondling all my sweaters. "Thank you for... um, keeping me so warm," I tell them, individually, tossing some in a pile to give away and folding the rest, neatly, to be placed back in my drawers. I will eventually move on to my socks, tights and knickers, caressing each pair to see if it "sparks joy" and discarding those that don't with heartfelt gratitude for the role they have thus far played in my life.

I am tidying up.

I've spent a lot of time tidying over the past few weeks, not so much guided as whipped into a feverish frenzy by Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I got it in a local bookstore after sheepishly asking for "the Japanese cleaning book."

The clerk knew exactly what I meant, of course: this book (Kondo's fourth title but first English translation) is making the rounds right now. It has sold over two million copies, and seems to really be hitting home with my demographic (i.e. the 20-something, urban-dwelling women who owns at least one dusty crystal and is vaguely aware when Mercury is or is not in retrograde) in particular. At least, that's how I found out about it – through the gentle, word-of-mouth hysteria of what felt like all of my friends at once.

Discovering a book this way felt odd in our time of memes and Instagramming ~impactful lines~ from ~important books~ that are ~happening~ right now. It's rare for a zeitgeist to find you IRL before you encounter it online. But it seemed impossible to avoid Marie Kondo's KonMari method. People were losing their shit over it.

For my part, I am as dubious about anything purporting to be life-changing as I am rabbit-in-a-hat magic done by a sweaty, drunk magician at a toddler's birthday party. And yet, the idea of a cleaner home and a more minimal "space" was appealing. Friends boasted about improvement in mood and better sleep the farther they got along in the process.

I even overheard a stranger on the subway talking about "the tidying book" say the following phrase, out loud, for everyone to hear: "I basically just realised that none of my hats were actually bringing me joy."

For the uninitiated, Kondo is a cartoon-adorable "cleaning consultant" and best-selling author from Japan who travels the world teaching her – patented – tidying method. Her classes have a three month waiting list and are based around the idea that effective tidying "involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things."

She claims every student who has completed her course has gone on to tidy their home permanently, changing their lives forever with no relapses into messiness. She also believes, very deeply and in a very real way, that all of her possessions are on some level sentient – that she can communicate with them, and they with her.

Kondo is not an objectum sexual, as far as I can tell, and nor does she appear to be encouraging you to forge an intimate, sticky relationship with your shirt sleeve. But she is a very intense person. She says things like, "To go through life without knowing how to fold is a huge loss," and, on some level, I know this to be true. "There is a significant similarity between meditating under a waterfall and tidying," she says. "Clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type."

I didn't even balk at the bit where Kondo texts her old cell phone, "Thank you for everything <3"

She's not fucking around, either. The book is peppered with stories from Kondo's tidiness-obsessed past and present, dominated by the conflict between an earnest desire to help others change their lives through tidying and the author's sombre insistence that she would not wish the difficult life of a cleaning consultant on anyone. Her theories range in utility from "the best time to start is in the morning" to "your socks are tired from being on your feet all day and you need to let them nap comfortably in your shelves."

In her preliminary one-on-one client sessions, Kondo typically facilitates the removal of between 20 and 30 45-litre rubbish bags of household items per person. This is because the KonMari method involves chucking out between two thirds and three quarters of your possessions based on whether or not they are useful and/or bring you the aforementioned spark of joy. There is no other criteria. You can, apparently, "just tell" if a thing makes you feel good.

"All of the objects in your home want to be of use to you," she says, adding that items that have outlived their usefulness are probably sad in your home and "just want to leave." It is a tall order to assemble everything you own in the middle of your living room and sort through it piece by piece, but Kondo claims this is the only way. "The key," she says, "is to make the change so sudden that you experience a complete change of heart."

Surrounded by my possessions, I realised my new guiding light was at least right about one thing – I had way too much stuff. I felt like a hoarder who only had a trodden-down pile of slushy newspapers as a path to the toilet.

I set to work following the order of sorting outlined in the book: clothes, books, komono (a Japanese word for everyday miscellany like coins, loose buttons... the kind of everyday ephemera found in every idiot's junk drawer). While most of Kondo's tidying tips are basic common sense – everything should have a place, store similar things together, there's no point in keeping a present if you don't like it – there were also some more specific nuggets that helped me on my path to decluttering.

Marie Kondo. Screengrab via

The phrase "downgrading to loungewear is taboo," for example, really hit me hard. One chapter cautioned against keeping old lecture materials; another warned about hanging on to tech manuals as though you'll ever use them over Googling the phrase "iPhone water damage rice not working" over and over. There was an entire section on "unidentified cords" that prompted a long, tangled shame spiral.

Many hours into my cleaning experience, though, I had a breakthrough: I hated almost everything I owned! It was going to be so easy to get rid of all my useless shit! I didn't need any of it! I could sleep on the floor fully clothed with all the lights on, like Kondo said she had during the writing of the book! The inside of my closet would be a little private paradise, as suggested, and the rest of my home would be bare. In a KondoMari-induced delirium I tossed old shoes, notebooks, and beauty products into bags to be donated. I found a crocheted (?) vest with the tags still on it and said, looking it right in the hem, "You know what? You did not bring me any joy."

I thanked the ugly-as-sin vest for teaching me what kinds of tops I thought were ugly, then threw it in a garbage bag. I felt good. Maybe too good.

Why? Because I realised I had just read the phrase, "Have you ever had the experience where you thought what you were doing was a good thing but later learned it had hurt someone? This is somewhat similar to the way many of us treat our socks," and thought, "Oh shit! Poor socks!" I had started hanging my clothes so that they slanted from left to right in my closet, but had not stopped to question whether sunlight really was a good disinfectant.

More worryingly, I didn't even balk at the bit where Kondo texts her old cell phone, "Thank you for everything <3," and then the phone SHUTS ITSELF DOWN PERMANENTLY, because it knows damn well that it's done a good job and that that job is now complete. It can transcend its mortal coil, peacefully and happily.

While the idea that "your feelings are the standard for decision-making" was quite appealing, and the act of clearing out old shit really did feel like a confrontation of my lived past and coming future, I fell short of being able to imagine dropping to my knees to "greet" my home when I got back from work. I probably wouldn't "visit" my knitwear during the summer months, to make sure they knew I was thinking about them. I did not think I would be happier with neat sushi rolls of tights instead of the tangle of chunky noodles I was working with currently. Frankly, I've got other shit to do.

Towards the end of the book, Kondo goes deep about the roots of her cleaning obsession. "My passion for tidying was motivated by a desire for recognition from my parents and a complex concerning my mother," she says. Then, in a passage that finally does have echoes of Married to the Eiffel Tower, she writes: "Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things. It was material things and my house that taught em to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends."

This passage – and the one that suggested effective tidying would also lead to overall weight loss – did, eventually, make me sad. I put down some of my garbage bags and went to call a friend who was not a scarf.

@monicaheisey

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