The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Hi, my name is Kathleen, and I like stuff.

life-changing-magic-of-tidying-upNot all stuff, admittedly—my problem areas are clothing (specifically dresses) and books. I mean, that’s the reason I started this blog: my overwhelming piles of unread books. I’m happy to say that since I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, those piles have gotten a little smaller. My closet is more organized, and my drawers have room in them.

Kondo is an organizing guru and this book is ostensibly about how to be tidy, but it’s really about how to approach the concept of possessions in a way that doesn’t leave you with piles of useless crap. The book is a manifesto in favour of minimalism and joy. Kondo’s point is that our possessions should bring us joy, from our socks to our hats to the oven mitts we use. Working through a typical home in categories, from clothing to books to papers to mementos and so on, Kondo urges us to ask ourselves, “Does this spark joy?” of everything we own. It’s a simple question, but it felt revolutionary when I applied it to my own belongings. No, in fact, that book I bought in 2004 and am clearly never going to read does not spark joy. It makes me feel guilty. And so out it went. (That book was Vanity Fair, by the way. I can’t believe I’ve carted that thing around to three different cities and five different apartments.)

“Does this spark joy?” is in fact a surprisingly easy question to answer. It turns out that joy is pretty easy to identify (as anyone who saw Inside Out knows). If you’re holding a shirt and you answer this question with, “Well, I paid a lot of money for this,” or “My mom gave it to me,” Kondo would say to get rid of the shirt. You should be able to say, “Yes!” to the question without qualifiers.

Kondo’s methods can seem kind of bizarre—for example, she advocates holding each item of clothing and thanking it for its service to you before discarding it—but she writes about them in such a matter-of-fact and encouraging tone that before long I was completely hooked. I’ve applied her method to my clothes, books, and papers so far. This is how it works: you take everything in your house that belongs to that category, let’s say clothing, and lay it out on the floor. This way you can confront it all at once. Spread out like that and it just looks like so much unnecessary stuff.  Why do I have so much?

A before shot of my dress pile. I really love dresses. About one third of them did not spark joy and were donated.

As I dutifully picked up each item and considered it, the benefits of Kondo’s method became apparent. When everything you own is on your floor, you’re forced to think about whether each item should get to go back into the closet. I found myself holding dresses I haven’t worn in years, remembering who I was with when I bought it or the friend’s wedding I wore it to. Somehow, remembering these things made it easier to part with items that didn’t spark joy. I spent the longest amount of time holding a plain t-shirt—ratty, old, and cheap—because it reminded me of a very particular memory. It was hard to get rid of it, but I had to face the fact that it didn’t spark joy (in fact, it made me kind of sad). Also, the memory exists in my head, not in the t-shirt.

The bottom drawer in this picture used to be packed, and now there is empty space.

Kondo also has a special method of folding clothes, and it is genius. There is about fifty times more space in each of my dresser drawers now from a combination of discarding and refolding.

Books were much harder than clothes. You see, Kondo is firm about unread books. She writes that if you haven’t read it soon after buying it, you’ll never read it. I don’t totally agree (and in fact this inspired me to pick up Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, which I can’t even remember acquiring it was so long ago, just to prove her wrong), but there was certainly a reason that I didn’t get around to reading some of those books. And that reason was that I didn’t want to. So out they went.

Half of my books, pre-KonMari. HALF.

I’ve made a deal with myself that the unread books I did keep have to be read within the next year. I’ve updated my list with those titles, so stay tuned.

Naturally, there has been a bit of backlash to Kondo’s method. A writer for the New York Times exhorted everyone to embrace clutter because to be human means to collect, to treasure. I agree, but do I really need to keep treasuring unopened mail from Scotiabank’s SCENE program? Probably not. Writing for the National Post, Emily M. Keeler expressed the same idea: “You are supposed to be burdened by your life, you are supposed to have stuff, to accumulate memories, experiences, and things in equal measure.” I agree with this, too, but as I’ve learned, memories and experiences are not tied to stuff, and not all stuff needs to stay tied to me, either. Believe me, I still have plenty of stuff (I probably wasn’t strict enough when I went KonMari on my clothes, to be honest). The thing is, when we get rid of what we don’t love, we can focus on all of the things we do love.

And why are we so beholden to our stuff, anyway? Our possessions aren’t supposed to possess us. It’s lovely to have dresses that we enjoy wearing and books to read and, I don’t know, a fancy cheese grater to grate fancy cheese or whatever else we like, but in the end, they are just objects. The meaning we give them comes from us. And we carry that meaning, invisible and weightless, with us.

My cat approved of the books I chose to keep.
My cat approved of the books I chose to keep.

Kondo has worked one-on-one with clients, and she writes that many of them have experienced big life changes after such sessions. We’re talking promotions, new jobs, new love interests, financial windfalls, etc. This is where her method gets a little bizarre again. I actually did get promoted recently, although obviously it wasn’t caused by my getting rid of a bunch of striped sweaters I don’t wear, but I think Kondo’s point is interesting. Clearing out items that don’t spark joy can make you feel more focused on the present and optimistic about what other things you want to focus on in your life. Changes can naturally follow.

I do know that since I’ve done this clear-out, I’ve been able to make some plans for my future. I feel a tiny bit less stuck than I did before. And all I had to do was get rid of an old t-shirt.

Two books about diseases and public health

I’ve mentioned a few times that my research focus during my MA was disease (specifically rabies) and the Victorian novel. I’m still very interested in diseases in general, especially how we construct narratives of disease and how these narratives—often deeply ingrained—influence our ideas about public health. Old (research) habits die hard: whenever I see a new cultural history of disease come out, I buy it. And that’s how I came to have Eula Biss’s On Immunity and Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map sitting unread on my shelf. I packed both for a vacation last month. I know, I am great at picking beach reads.

onimmunityAs its title suggests, On Immunity is an examination of the idea of immunity. Biss was inspired to write the book after she had a baby and faced the question of whether or not to vaccinate him. Biss did vaccinate her son, as she had always thought she would, but she was surprised by the amount of fear she felt herself, and encountered in others, when she talked to other mothers about this choice. She started thinking about vaccination, and the idea of immunity, and how vaccines developed in the first place, and this strange cultural moment we live in where people are opting out of vaccines that have saved literally millions of lives in the past hundred years. (I’m wildly pro-vaccine, in case that wasn’t clear before.)

In On Immunity, Biss interrogates the metaphors and myths we use to describe immunity. Vaccination is an expression of fear, whether it is fear of something concrete and relatively preventable such as death by measles, or something far more intangible, such as the fear of death itself. But the anti-vaccination movement is also based on fear: fear of the government, fear of Big Pharma, fear of injecting the unknown into your body. If skin is a barrier between our bodies (our selves?) and the outside world, then vaccination penetrates that barrier—all in the name of granting you immunity.  It does seem contradictory, doesn’t it? After all, vaccines contain the very viruses they are supposed to be protecting us from. The earliest form of inoculation against smallpox involved rubbing scabs or fluid from a smallpox patient into one’s own skin.

Biss understands this fear of vaccines on an individual level, but she also points out that in the case of infectious disease, our bodies may not be solely our own. Herd immunity, which means the general immunity to a particular disease in a population of people, depends upon people getting vaccinated. As the recent resurgence of diseases like measles shows, it only takes a few nutty people to threaten herd immunity for everyone. And there are people who can’t be vaccinated for health reasons (ex. allergies) or who have compromised immune systems (ex. cancer patients). What is our responsibility to public health? Are we required to be vaccinated so that others won’t get sick? Health is assessed on an individual level at our yearly physicals, but our own physical health depends in many ways upon the health of our community, especially when it comes to infectious diseases.

Victorian London learned this the hard way during the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. Cholera was the scourge of the 19th century, popping up every so often and routinely killing thousands of people per outbreak. (Cholera is still a problem today.) No one knew how it was spread until the Broad Street outbreak, but there were plenty of theories, chief among them the miasma theory. Simply put, back then, London stank. Lots of people crammed into tiny dwellings leads to lots of waste, and Victorian Londoners weren’t so great at managing their sewer system (or, um, having one). The air in London smelled pretty bad. Many respected officials and doctors believed that diseases, including cholera, were spread by this “bad air,” aka the miasma theory.

A cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.
An 1858 cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.

Along came John Snow, a doctor who was already notorious for pioneering the use of anaesthesia. When an outbreak of cholera occurred in his neighbourhood in Soho, he mapped the instances of disease and traced them all back to one water pump, where he found that the water supply had been contaminated by one household suffering from cholera. Feces from that household made its way into the water supply, and the disease spread through the water supply into the surrounding houses with devastating effects. Snow was one of the first epidemiologists, although he never got the credit he deserved and died without having his theory accepted by the medical establishment of the day.

ghostmapThe Ghost Map tells the story of this outbreak and Snow’s investigations. It is well-researched and fascinating, like a thriller where the villain is invisible and also causes a lot of diarrhea and suffering. I wish, though, that Johnson had spent more time investigating the cultural context of cholera and how Victorians thought about disease. The idea of the social body is an important one to add to this discussion, especially because it still has relevance today (see Biss’s questions about whether we owe it to our neighbours to get vaccinated). And how did Victorians approach infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever?  How did they write about disease in their newspapers, depict it in cartoons, confront it in their fiction? They had limited medical knowledge of pathogens and germs, but they were beginning to break through in other important areas (microscopes, the idea of inoculation). It seems to me that this conflict gave rise to many inaccurate but interesting depictions of diseases that suggest a society obsessed with health, illness, and infection. The Ghost Map could have benefited from some discussion of these questions.

In some ways, we’re still Victorians. Just like them, we’re obsessed with health. Also like them, and other humans throughout history, we still infuse our disease-related language with metaphor. As Biss points out, the way we talk about many diseases is steeped in the language of battle: so-and-so “lost her battle with cancer,” white blood cells are “armies” that keep our bodies safe from infection. In our struggle to understand our bodies, we rely on metaphor to give shape to our invisible inner workings. As Susan Sontag argues in Illness as Metaphor (a must-read for anyone interested in these issues), our dependence on metaphor leads to moral judgments about certain diseases. Sontag looks at consumption (tuberculosis) in the 19th century and cancer in the 20th and concludes that our disease metaphors lead to a kind of blame the victim mentality. For the Victorians, all kinds of diseases could blamed on emotional repression or moral failings. Countless novels feature women who are forced to bury their feelings and are soon wasting away from some nameless ailment. Men in the same novels who are “weak” and prone to drink inevitably end up dying of their own unnamed illness. And not a lot has changed in how we talk about illness. In 1978, when Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, one alternative cancer treatment involved psychotherapy to help find out what part of your personality brought cancer upon you.

Likewise, our current obsession with trends like “clean eating” often leads us to assume that people who don’t eat chickens that were raised to believe in themselves and organic blueberries watered with angel tears are doomed. There is, of course, a lot of privilege involved in these assumptions we make about health and wellness. The point is, a disease is never just a disease.  It’s a battle we must fight. It’s a statement about our incomes, the food we eat, the amount of exercise we get, the kind of sex we have or the number of partners, the amount of alcohol we drink. It’s a sign of our most private defects, writ upon our bodies for the whole world to see.

And why do we think about disease this way? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because we have a hard time accepting that our bodies are, ultimately, out of our control. We can eat all the happy chicken we want and avoid pesticides and wear a mask on the subway, but we’ll still get sick, especially if we live in large urban centres (and increasingly, many of us do). There are precious few things we can control about our bodies. All the more reason to get vaccinated.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When I first heard that HarperCollins was releasing what people were calling a “sequel” of sorts to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical. Who wasn’t? On the one hand you have a reclusive, aging author who has avoided the public eye her entire life and doesn’t seem interested in publishing anything else. On the other hand, there’s a big publishing company with this unedited draft someone happened to find in the vault. Okay, sure. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most major publishing event of this century so far. This book is going to make HarperCollins a ton of money, which they know. It all sounded like a “quirky” Jason Reitman movie waiting to happen.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_Watchman But clearly, as someone who works in publishing, is interested in writing, and likes TKaM, I was going to have to read Go Set a Watchman. I put it off. I read all the reviews claiming that it destroys the legacy (we’ll get to this in a minute) of TKaM and portrays Beloved Father Figure Atticus Finch ™ as a racist. I read the advance first chapter, published online by various media outlets, and felt my heart sink when I found out that Scout’s brother Jem, so prominent in TKaM, was dead in this version of the story.

Then, I read the whole thing myself. Reader, I finished it in an afternoon. There are plenty of problems with Go Set a Watchman, even setting aside the questionable choice to publish it at all (which you can read about in more detail here). But I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, much more than I had expected.

Here’s the thing: Go Set a Watchman isn’t a standalone novel. It’s a first draft of TKaM, and that’s the only reason why it’s such an interesting read. If I were evaluating this novel on its own, I would say that the dialogue is frankly terrible (all speeches, no real conversations), the plot, such as it is, is poorly paced, and the climax doesn’t work. It is very, very clear that this particular draft was never edited and was instead reworked. A short flashback scene was expanded into what would become TKaM. I don’t think that Watchman needed to be published to such fanfare or marketed as a “sequel” or “continuation” to TKaM, because I feel that is quite misleading, but it’s fascinating to read. In Watchman, readers can trace exactly what editing is and what it does.

How does editing change a book? The point is that the average reader will never know. Editing is supposed to be a behind-the-scenes, invisible hand kind of activity. And yet here we are with a record of how one of the twentieth century’s most famous books became itself. Even non-publishing-nerds can agree that that’s kind of cool. You can see traces of TKaM in Watchman, of course. Even in her late twenties, Scout (now mainly referred to as Jean Louise) is all sharp edges and angles. When she visits Maycomb as an adult, she doesn’t fit in any more than she fit in when she was a child who refused to wear dresses. And the flashback scenes where Jean Louise reflects on her childhood adventures with Jem and Dill are the best parts of Watchman—funny, so realistically childlike, and poignant, especially because Jem is dead in this version of the story.

The New York Times has more information on Harper Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff. You can see how she would read this draft and see that it would work better as a novel told from a child’s point of view. When it became TKaM, the book got tighter and less preachy. The dialogue became real dialogue instead of two characters performing soliloquies at each other. As a historical document, Watchman is interesting reading. As a novel, well, it needs some work (which is just what it got). But there are flashes of Lee’s brilliance throughout, especially in her use of details (clothing, quirks) to establish character, and her ability to evoke mood and atmosphere in few words.

So is Atticus Finch racist? Not more racist, and certainly a lot less, than any other average seventysomething white man living in rural Alabama in the 1950s. Watchman‘s portrayal of Atticus can only be surprising to you if you a) never got past the stage of childhood where you idolize your parents, or some other parental figure, or b) know nothing about the civil rights movement and what American society was like in the 1950s. Newsflash: all white people are at least a little bit racist, even today.

Jean Louise finds out that Atticus was once a member of the KKK (only to keep an eye on their activities, someone claims) and that he’s now joined a sort of concerned citizens’ group that wants to preserve segregation and keep Black citizens of Maycomb “in their place.” This is a fairly realistic portrayal of the insidiousness of racism. Even someone like Atticus, a lawyer who appears to believe strictly in the law and justice above all else, is blind to the way his cultural upbringing has shaped his beliefs. Prejudice creeps in. Jean Louise, who has escaped to the marginally more enlightened New York City, is horrified to learn all this about her father, a man she idolized. They have a cringe-worthy confrontation that feels a little bit like a scene in a drama major’s thesis project. Jean Louise accuses her father of being racist and inconsistent. He accepts her insults because he knows she has to strangle her idealized version of him in order to finally grow up. There’s something interesting there, but it’s all a little undercooked.

Even so, Jean Louise’s realization that her father is just a man is moving, and his characterization as a lawyer who still thinks that Black people are “in their infancy” as a people is cringe-worthy, but not inaccurate to the period in which the novel was written. As a novel about race (certainly the last thing I am qualified to opine about, but here we go), where Watchman really fails is in its refusal to allow Black characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. TKaM got away with this, at least in part, because it’s told from a white child’s point of view. Scout is necessarily blind to the deeper forces at work in Maycomb. In fact, that’s the point of TKaM—she learns about the evils of racism through the trial of Tom Robinson.

But as Lawrence Hill points out, except for Calpurnia (who has a very small role in Watchman), there are no “three-dimensional, fully rendered black character[s] in either book.” The brouhaha over whether or not Atticus is racist obscures the larger point: that we’re still idealizing a white saviour from a novel published in 1960. TKaM is a snapshot of race relations at a particular time in American history. It’s written from a white perspective. It’s not a guidebook. If its subject matter, about Black men being falsely accused of crimes and white society turning a blind eye, is still relevant today, that’s a sad commentary on our failure to change, not a sign of the book’s timelessness.

And Atticus isn’t a god. Whose fault is it that Atticus turned out to be a mere mortal? Not his, and certainly not Harper Lee’s.

Twentysomething by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig

Atwentysomething_why_do_young_adults_seem_stuck_by_robin_marantz_henig_samantha_henig_1101600489 few months ago, I started to notice I had this strange feeling: like I was kind of stuck. After a few years of moving cities, getting and leaving jobs, and finishing degrees, I’ve now been in the same job and apartment for about two years. This is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since I finished my BA, really since I became an adult, and it feels weird. Having settled into something of a career, or at least an industry I enjoy working in, I began to think about where I wanted to go. But I was having a hard time making decisions that I’d been mulling over for a long time (literal years, in some cases): Should I go back to school? Should I start a blog? (And later, why don’t I ever update my blog?) Do I need more hobbies? Why don’t I write more? Where do I want to live? What do I really want to do?

And because my general plan for most crises is to read my way out of them, I went on a hunt for books about “quarter-life crises.” Yup, I’m one of those. I listened to Meg Jay’s TED Talk on why 30 is not the new 20, and then I read her book The Defining Decade. It terrified me because it’s about the things you should be doing in your twenties—that is, if you want to reach a set of prescribed goals by the time you’re in your thirties (career, marriage, house, children). Not all of my goals align with what Jay tells us are the markers of a settled adult life, but nevertheless, I wished I had read the book five or six years before, when I was just finishing undergrad and had most of my twenties left ahead of me.


And then I found a book called Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by the mother/daughter writing team of Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig. Marantz Henig is the author of a New York Times article called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?“, which was about why this (my) generation seems to be taking so long to grow up. Samantha Henig is her twentysomething daughter. Twentysomething is exploratory rather than prescriptive; they give some advice, but the focus of the book is on how and why things have changed for young adults from Marantz Henig’s youth to her daughter’s. The book is divided into sections (school, work, dating/sex/marriage, friendship, etc.), and one of the authors writes the bulk of each section, with the other contributing comments here and there. At the end of each section, they both make a decision about whether this is something unique to this particular generation (Generation Y or Millennials), or whether young adulthood has always been tough and things are really just the same as ever.

This is an interesting structure for a book like this, and I especially appreciated reading Samantha Henig’s thoughts on her mother’s depiction of our generation. Their overall conclusion is the realization that life is kind of a mess when you’re in your twenties, because you’re figuring things out, and that hasn’t changed much despite all of the things today’s twentysomethings are now struggling with (for example, high student loans, recession, competitive job market, the rise of online dating and casual sex). I don’t know whether I agree, but they made a good case.

But the thing is, this book did not make me feel better or give me any direction for my life. A pat conclusion (“Things are hard! It’ll be okay!”) is not particularly what I was looking for. I think I could have learned more about choices, mistakes, and regret from one Alice Munro story. On some level, it’s helpful to know that other people struggle with the same issues that I do, but I want to know what I can do about them. Are we just supposed to wait out an entire decade of our lives until things become more clear? When I hit 30, am I suddenly going to be full of clarity and self-acceptance? This is what my friends in their thirties keep crowing about, but I am suspicious.

I’m tired, too, of reading books that suggest you need to hit certain markers of adulthood to be considered an adult. People who never get married or have children or own a home aren’t some other, lesser category of adult. So in an age where people are less likely to get married, have children, and own homes, what are the new markers of adulthood? Do we still care? That would have been an interesting book.

So, it seems that reading did not solve this particular life crisis. It’s been a few months since I read this book, and I’m still dealing with the same questions. (Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, I’ve at least ruled out going back to school for a PhD!) A more helpful plan might be to try new things and figure out what really makes me the most excited and enthused about life. And, of course, read more Alice Munro.

On the other hand, Twentysomething and The Defining Decade made me realize that I should spend more time on skills I want to develop (writing) and less time worrying that I will never develop them. Which means this blog is back in action—and while my goal is still to read through my unread books, I’m going to be blogging about the other books I read, too. And I got rid of a bunch of the unread ones, so a list update will be forthcoming.

I am now taking recommendations for novels about people in their twenties who figured out their lives. Is that a thing?


The List

One day, I was watching an episode of Game of Thrones and happened to glance over at my bookshelf, where A Feast for Crows, book four in the series, has been sitting unread since I bought it. Three years ago. I thought, hmm, maybe I should read that at some point. It is taking up valuable shelf space. Along with Our Mutual Friend and War and Peace and various books on grammar and the history of the English language that I thought I would get around to reading.

And thus, this blog idea was born. I’m going to read my way through all of the unread books on my shelf and post about them here. Along with the other books I’m reading. The rules (because I love rules) of this project are simple: 1. I can’t buy a new book until I read an unread one that I already own. (I am allowed to keep reading library books and books borrowed from friends.) 2. I’m allowed to quit books, but only if I’ve read at least 100 pages and I’m really not into it.

Books of poetry have been excluded from this project, because I said so.

Without further ado, here is the complete list in alphabetical order:

Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash
The Brontes, Juliet Barker
How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom
Santa Claus: A Biography, Gerry Bowler
Mr. Darcy’s Guide to Courtship, Emily Brand (disclaimer: I did not buy this for myself)
A Truth Universally Acknowledged, ed. Susannah Carson
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
For Her Own Good, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders
Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
Jane Goes Batty, Michael Thomas Ford
On the Map, Simon Garfield
Sylvia’s Lovers, Elizabeth Gaskell
Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt
Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy
Moby-Duck, Donovan Hohn
Red Herrings and White Elephants, Albert Jack
Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, ed. Gordon Jarvie
What We Hide, Marthe Jocelyn
The Ghost Map, Stephen Berlin Johnson
The First Word, Christine Kenneally
In Darkest London, John Law (a pseudonym for Margaret Harkness)
The Xmas Files, Stephen Law
Word Origins, Anatoly Liberman
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore
The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
Origins of the Specious, Patricia T. O’Conner
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
The Son, James Scott
Contested Will, James Shapiro
Richard III, William Shakespeare
King Lear, William Shakespeare
The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, Michael Slater
The Jane Austen Handbook, Margaret Sullivan
Vanity Fair, William Thackeray
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester
A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf
Robert Schumann, John Worthen
If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It!, Ben Yagoda

This is going to take longer than I thought…