A Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo (2014)

Marie Kondo  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Ten Speed Press, 2014.

Animism for Cluttered Materialists would have been a better title for this small and unlikely New York Times #1 best-seller. That, however, would be too obvious. The young and unbearably cute author is an expert in helping her clients throw things out. There is an art to it, you know. The author knows, and she will tell you as she puts into the writing the philosophy she developed in Japan as a professional clean-up consultant with a three-month waiting list.

As a life-long order-challenged and clutter-producing slob, I bought this book hoping against hope that it might help. I got some help, but not much. She is right that we should not surround ourselves with things that weigh us down and do not good. Our environment should give us a sense of joy. That gave me the courage to give away many clothes and to exchange my boring socks with happy socks. My deeper response was that of spiritual concern, since the book tacitly advocates an animistic worldview, which strangely mixed with materialism.

At no point does Miss Kondo warn of the moral dangers of acquisitiveness. Greed and waste are left alone as if they were strangers to the problem. Peter Singer is not quoted. Nor is, more significantly, Jesus, who preached:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

For Kondo, treasure is having enough rightly-organized possessions to be happy. She repeatedly tells stories of her clients who threw out large amounts of clothes and other items. Having taken bags and bags of assorted things to Goodwill in recent months, I wondered why she never mentioned the practice of giving things away to those who need them more. But that is not the point. The point that matters is your feeling about your dwelling.

In portions nearly unbearable to read, Kondo advises that we weed out our books also, even after we have read them, putting books in the same category as old clothes, dishes, pillows, and more. This is not a literary person. The idea of rereading a book or having a library of books does cross her hyper-tidy mind. C.S. Lewis is a tonic for this toxin:

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

The author’s carefree and unconscious materialism is bad enough; but what is worse is her animism. She is not a philosophical materialist—one who claims that the material universe is all there is. Her materialism is cultural, related to the acquisition and arrangement of objects of desire. But these things are really alive. Near the beginning of the book, we learn that socks want to “breath.” So, we should not ball them up, but lay them flat. This was no rhetorical trope. She meant it literally. We should speak our possessions, because they are giving themselves to us. We should be grateful and let them know.

Kondo is influenced by Shintoism, a largely regional religion of Japan. Shintoism is marked by respect for holy sites and their spirits (or kami). (Amazon, however, lists it at #1 seller in “Zen Spirituality.”) It is unlikely that a Shinto priest would endorse this book—and even if so, it would not increase book sales—but she is a savvy evangelist for this religion, since her advocacy is tacit rather than explicit. It is a book about cleaning up, not about greeting spirits. C.S. Lewis noted this strategy in his classic essay, “Christian Apologetics” (1945) from God in the Dock. I doubt Kondo has read this essay, but she is applying the strategy that Lewis advocates for Christian apologetics:

I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by an directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s lines of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent… You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if wherever we read an elementary book on Geology, botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books.

It is sad that a Christian did not write a clever, short, and best-selling book on the organization of possessions in which the Christian worldview was assumed, but not defended. Such a book—which, of course, I could not write—would reflect on the meaning of possessions, our loving use of them, our obligations to those in need, the value of possessions in relation to life’s ultimate meaning, how to become less mastered by possessions, the joys of hospitality, and much more. These ideas would form the foundation for any practical advice on sorting, storing, and enjoying possessions.

Kondo’s little treatise promises us not just a tidy home, but a better life. When we make friends with the spirits of our belongings, we can enjoy them, feel free, and be troubled about small matters such as greed, waste, and the one true God who towers over all false gods, Shinto or otherwise.


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