Jennifer Howard’s ‘Clutter: An Untidy History’ takes Marie Kondo’s message a step further

Jennifer Reese

THE WASHINGTON POST – A growing number of popular books promise to help us declutter our homes, making the case that emptying our closets and off-loading knick-knacks that don’t spark joy will improve our spirits and ultimately our lives.

In her stern and wide-ranging new manifesto, Clutter: An Untidy History, journalist Jennifer Howard takes the anti-clutter message a step further. Howard argued that decluttering is not just a personally liberating ritual, but a moral imperative, a duty we owe both to our children and to the planet.

“As Boomers age, move into smaller places, or die, their Gen X and Millennial relatives are called on to step up and clean up after them,” Howard wrote. To leave behind a mountain of belongings for others to dismantle, Howard wrote, “replicates, on a personal level, the shortsightedness and abnegation of responsibility that have handed us climate change. It’s too much trouble to sort out all this stuff; dealing with it just reminded us that we’re going to die anyway and that none of it matters. Let the kids deal with it”.

Howard was a kid who had to deal with it, and she didn’t enjoy the experience. The scenario that inspired this book will be familiar to many readers, even if they haven’t responded with Howard’s bitterness: When her elderly mother moved to a care facility, Howard was left to empty her “fully loaded” house.

In part because her mother had begun suffering from dementia, Howard encountered a scene of appalling squalor, “The kitchen is a health inspector’s nightmare. Larvae squirm through the sludge that covers the dirty dishes filling the sink. Mouse droppings dot the counter tops like sprinkles.”

But there was plenty of garden-variety clutter to sift through as well. Howard empties closets that “overflow with Amalfi and Ferragamo shoes, formal gowns from four decades of artistic galas and premieres, and pantsuits for the 1980s and ’90s career woman, with boxy jackets and and gold jewellery big enough to be noticed but not large enough to be garish”.

Every surface is littered with objects, “pill bottles, nail scissors, binder clips, chopsticks, pens, pencils, coupons, pocket change, random keys, sticks of chewing gum”.

Faced with her mother’s accumulated possessions, Howard was deeply resentful and, for better and worse, that resentment drives this book. Whether you can relate will probably dictate how you feel about it. I am all too capable of resentment, but while the year I spent cleaning out my late mother’s house was full of intense emotions, resentment was never one of them. This is not to discount Howard’s experience, just to say that ‘Clutter’ is grounded in a sentiment that may be less relatable than she thinks.

Howard devoted a chapter early in the book to the mysterious causes of hoarding, a clinical, sometimes lethal, disorder that afflicts between two per cent and six per cent of the population, perhaps including her mother. Howard’s central concern is not the pathological extreme, however, but “our own vexed relationships with things”, which is to say, the ordinary chaos of tchotchkes on your mantelpiece, the box of moth-eaten baby clothes that hasn’t been opened since 1982, the tote bag you take from the conference because it’s free, the tacky souvenir refrigerator magnet you’re tempted to buy on vacation.

Howard would tell you to enjoy your vacation but resist that refrigerator magnet – and while you’re at it, quit taking so many pictures – you’ll never look at most of them again, and the ensuing digital clutter will ultimately weigh on your mind, as it does on hers.

How did our lives get so cluttered? Howard traced our “collective clutter agita” back to the Victorians, who favoured parlours overstuffed with the curios generated by a burgeoning industrial economy. The Victorians, she asserted, “helped establish expectations that persist today about what a well-appointed home looks like”.

This is a curious claim given that the shelter publications of recent decades have featured airy, minimalist spaces with only the scantiest, most artful clutter, certainly no unsightly children’s toys, dog crates or television screens.

She’s more convincing when she moves on to the rise of catalogue shopping in the 19th Century, the precursor to the likes of Amazon that today allowed us to satisfy our appetite for consumer goods almost instantaneously. Alas, once those shiny new items that turn up on the doorstep outlive their usefulness or cease to spark joy, they may well end up in landfills or shipped to other countries where, Howard wrote, our consumer detritus is “smothering villages, covering beaches, producing an environmental disaster that threatens to eat up the world”.

While I’m not about to get rid of my mother’s wedding china or my great-grandfather’s spectacles, I’ll think twice before clicking “buy now” after reading this book. Howard’s description of its grave environmental harms constitutes a far more compelling argument against clutter than the risk of burdening the next generation with emptying our houses. For the record, my children agree.