Sunday, January 20, 2019

Tidying up, or: The simple living backlash.

Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center, Philadelphia
Copyright 2018 Lynne Cantwell
This past week, much was made on social media of advice supposedly given by Marie Kondo. Kondo, who is Japanese, has been described as a decluttering guru. She has made a career out of helping people get rid of their excess stuff. She now has a reality show on Netflix in which, I'm told, she visits couples who need to make their living space more livable and makes suggestions on how they could do it. She brings a Shinto aesthetic to the process, thanking the house for providing shelter and thanking each individual thing for its service to the household. And then, she says, if you hold the thing and it doesn't spark joy in you, out it should go, to someone in whom it would spark joy.

The thing that set people off was a comment about her view of books. She says she has gone through her collection and now keeps just 30 books. Total. She says that feels like the right number to her.

To which the booklovers of America collectively retorted, "You'll get my books when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands." 

Well, words to that effect, anyway.

I saw someone on Twitter sniff that Americans' criticism of Kondo stems from racism. I don't agree. I do think she comes from a culture where living spaces are smaller and where extremely spare decorating schemes seem to be the ideal. In the Indie Wire interview that I linked to above, Kondo admits that. And she also says her book-collecting advice is practical in Japan, where the humid climate rapidly damages books. There, if you're not going to read a book, it's better for the book to be passed along.

Also in that interview, she says, "The question you should be asking is what do you think about books. If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you how passionate you are about books, what’s clearly so important in your life." And if you're that passionate about books, and you have the room, then by all means, keep as many as you want. In other words, when you're decluttering, keep only things that are meaningful to you.

That's advice that's not specific to any culture. I first heard it twenty years ago in a book called Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Their idea was to pare your living expenses to essentials while building up your savings and investments, with the aim of retiring early. Paring your expenses necessarily means bowing out of most of the consumer culture that's so prevalent in the West. Besides, the more stuff you own, the more time you have to spend cleaning and maintaining it. Pretty soon, your stuff owns you.

I was active in the simple living movement for several years, but gradually drifted away. It got harder and harder to keep a lid on my expenses; something always seemed to throw a monkey wrench into my plans to save. These days, I know it was partly because while prices have kept going up, wages have been stagnant in this country for the past four decades -- basically my entire working life. 

Anyway, my point is that Ms. Kondo is simply the face of the newest iteration of a philosophy of living that has been around for a long, long time. It's not a bad idea to consider, every now and then, whether you own your stuff, or whether your stuff owns you. 

And feel free to own as many books as you like. I do.

These moments of sparsely-furnished blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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