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The secret art of life-curation: book review

The title here is not strictly the book’s title, but I think it ought to be. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying is, at its heart, about the prioritising and ordering of things in life that bring joy. The book is a bestseller, and Kondo can be seen in YouTube videos helping people implement her eponymous method (#konmari). 
Tidying, along with decluttering, is en vogue. So en vogue that here is also something of a backlash, exemplified in Dominique Browning’s New York Times article ‘Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter’. However, the Konmari approach to tidying need not be anti-‘clutter’ in the sense of being utilitarian, as at the heart of the exercise is joy. We can have all the ‘clutter’ in the world if we like, as long as it brings us joy and each item has a place in our home. 
Konmari offers a set of instructions that are, apparently, failsafe or relapse-proof. She advocates tidying one’s home thoroughly, all in one go, and tackling clothes first, before addressing books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items like stationary and DVDs), and finally sentimental items. The purpose of the ordering is to help you hone your ability to make decisions about what items to keep, based solely on whether they bring you joy. This is why I think Konmari can be best thought of not as tidying, but as life-curation.

Increasingly, we all have an instinct about life-curation. On social media, in our CVs, in reading or listening to reports of how being mindful and authentic will improve our lives, relationships, and health, we all spend time thinking about how we are in the world, and how we wish to appear to be. A healthy approach to that is to look inwards and ask what brings us joy, rather than ask what we ‘need’ to keep up with the Joneses, or are supposed to own or enjoy.

So it was with a sense of hopefulness that I endeavoured to implement Kondo’s method in my own little London one-bed. The first task was clothing. Fair enough. I was rigorous with myself. And I have done many such wardrobe exercises in the past. I was feeling like a pro, but trying to be more thoughtful about my decision-making. It took a while, but the pile of remaining clothes was notably smaller than the pile I had started with.

Having done all of the clothes, however, I ran into a difficulty: my home is too small to have all the things out all of the time. I needed to put all the clothes back. Before doing that, I had to seize the opportunity move the furniture, clean the walls, empty the other parts of the bedroom too, so that I could put things where I’d eventually want them. By the end of day one, I had just about managed to put all the clothes away again (barring shoes and handbags), and get out all of the books (see top photo). Given the number of books I own, I was starting to feel worried about the ‘all in one go’ doctrine.

I ploughed on. It was a three-day weekend, and I had started, so I had to finish. Books were also the most challenging area. I love my books. And although I respect Kondo, her feelings toward books are not mine. In discouraging people from keeping both unread and read books, she says, “‘Sometime’ means ‘never'”, and that “books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember”.

I had close to 600 books when I started the exercise. I recycled/donated about 150. But I kept both unread books, and those that I’d last read years ago. Because ‘sometime’ often does come for me, and I cannot be satisfied with her casual “even if you don’t remember”. The physical books are there to remind us. It is one of the reasons why e-books generally don’t work for me. A chance encounter with a book, a glance at its title or front cover, is about memory, and often sparks ideas for me.

More generally, ‘reliving’ memories is the way in which we construct them, bring them into a sense of order, draw them into the stream of our lives. Taking care over the things we keep, and arranging them so that we can encounter them time after time, is about establishing a space that is part of our lives, rather than just the location for them. This is what Kondo’s method brings to the fore: the care we should take in ordering the threads of our life and making them ready-at-hand for ourselves. To wit, a William Morris poster, long buried in a cardboard tube, revived as part of one of my many bookcases.

For those who want to be more mindful about the little things, there are worse places to start than with Konmari.

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