Before wrapping up my interview with Marie Kondo, who might well be world’s foremost cleaning consultant, I promised I would put one of her de-cluttering lessons to the test prior to reviewing her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” And so here I am in my narrow hallway, between the entrance and the living room, with a Mount Fuji-sized pile of more than 200 books.
Ten Speed Press, Nonfiction.
The KonMari method boils down to this: Discard that which does not bring joy to your life. She advises being tactile, but when clearing out books she warns against dipping in and out of pages. “Reading clouds your judgment.” I manage to toss a few, until I run my hand down the spine of my unfinished copy of “Ulysses,” bookmarked at page 181. It pains me that I haven’t finished it. Will I ever? Should I just chuck it and get on with my life as Kondo advises? James Joyce doesn’t give a twopenny damn, but Marie Kondo does. Oh, bother.
If I could go back in space and time I would befriend Kondo as a child, for selfish reasons — first of which would be to please my mother.
“I used to clean my brother and sister’s rooms,” Kondo explains. “And I would go to friends’ houses and clean their rooms, too.”
In a sense, what Kondo does now is no different to what she did in her formative years: tidying and thinking about tidying. Obsessively so. Except that in the meantime she has perfected the craft and become a cleaning sensation: Her latest book has sold more than a million copies in Japan; it has been translated into English, German and Taiwanese; in Japan she is a regular on TV, radio, the Web and in magazines; waiting time for a private consultation runs into months. In person, the 29-year-old Kondo is petite, no bigger than a broom, but more powerful than a Dyson vacuum cleaner.
I’d expected Kondo to have come from a house where cleanliness and orderliness were paramount, but it turns out that her family were just like the O’Donoghues: in turns messy and orderly. Normal.
It was the young Kondo who was the black sheep — an eternally cleaning busybody, as she outlines in her book. Her early forays in bringing order to her closet, her room and her family home brought pain instead of joy. Like most people will attest to when it comes to cleaning, the relentlessness of it defeated her. It was during one of these episodes, after despairing over her fruitless efforts, that she heard a voice.
“Look more closely at what is there,” the voice said.
The young Kondo was prescient enough to interpret this message, or rather reinterpret it, as to what she had been doing wrong, she writes in the book. De-cluttering begins with what you want to keep, what you really want to keep. Then, discarding becomes easy. This is the gospel according to Kondo.
Kondo’s book is part biography (“When I found something not in use I would pounce on it vengefully and throw it in the rubbish,” she writes. “Not surprisingly, I became increasingly irritable and tense and found it impossible to relax in my own home”), part compendium of home truths (“When it comes to tidying most people are lazy; one major reason so many of us never succeed in tidying is because we have too much stuff”) and your standard self-help book, with plenty of tips and stern advice (“Effective tidying involves only two essential actions, discarding and deciding where to store things. Never, ever tie up your tights and stockings. Never, ever ball your socks”).
Kondo admits that she is surprised by the phenomenal success of her book in Japan, but thinks that in part it is because it is more than a self-help book.
“My book is about more than the technical and mechanical aspects of cleaning: It’s about the emotional and psychological impact cleaning has on our lives,” Kondo says by way of explaining its unprecedented appeal.
For Kondo, cleaning is not just an aesthetic improvement; it reflects psychological issues. You know the saying tidy house, tidy mind. Conversely, the mess about you is symptomatic of “larger issues.”
The book was published earlier this year in Europe, and this month it gets its American release. Kondo believes that her tidying tips are universal.
“A lot of people agree that tidying is connected to how we live,” she says, “and even though outside of Japan houses might be bigger, people have more things than they need.”
One of the big departures in Kondo’s cleaning methodology, at least for me, is to clean by category, not location. My mother would always tackle cleaning room by room — the kitchen, followed by the utility room, then the bedrooms. No, Kondo says, politely, but firmly. Think category, such as clothes, accessories and books — which is why I am sitting among my pile of paperbacks.
Kondo’s book is worthwhile for anyone who wants to have more of less. She demystifies the mess that keeps piling up by forcing you to examine everything, and I mean everything, in your life.
I admit that following the KonMari method put me in a new mode of thinking when it came to deciding whether to keep a book or chuck it. And it actually feels good to have a pile of rejects and an orderly library-like bookshelf. But I would be lying if I said in among the keepers there aren’t books I will never read again, or even finish reading in the first place. Call them memory books or friends, just don’t tell Kondo about them.