The Nonsense of Obsessive Tidying

Life’s too short to fold a sock.

Why is it that a couple of Japanese books about TIDYING have swept the western world, and its 31-year-old author, Marie Kondo, become an adored guru?

Perhaps the simple answer lies in the designer Orla Kiely’s observation that we all have too much stuff nowadays. ‘Stuff’ is coming out of our ears, and cluttering up our homes and our minds, and so Ms Kondo’s oeuvre “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying”, and its follow-up “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying” have appeared at exactly the right moment.

Timing is everying.

While KonMari (as Marie Kondo also signs herself) advocates some sensible tactics for, literally, getting your house in order, much of what she says is so blindingly obvious that it hardly bears repeating. Arranging possessions by category is obviously practical. But “a place for everything and everything in its place,” was a copybook heading when my granny was in infants’ school. It’s a wise old saw, and when people grow old, it’s almost life-saving advice: if you always hang the front-door key on a key-hook in the hall, it will always be there. (I’d like to add a coda, too: never alter the established location of an item, for its established place will be fixed in your minds eye.)

But I believe that much of KonMari’s philosophy should be questioned and some of her advice regarded with caution. Her central focus is on discarding: discard, discard, discard. This idea can be quite nefarious. All right, I’m a clutterbug, so I’d be the enemy for Ms Kondo, but were it not for the clutterbugs of this world, there would be no historical archives.

Where has all the most interesting memorabilia from 1916 come from? Often from the clutter in people’s attics. It exists because there was no tidying obsessive to instruct folk to chuck out all papers.

Here’s another example. When the writer Charles Moore was embarking on his authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, he was dismayed to discover that Maggie, being a super-tidy person  answered every letter promptly, and then threw it away. There were no letters or personal memorabilia at all. This is catastrophic for a biographer. But, fortunately, Margaret’s sister Muriel threw out nothing, and in her attic reposed a full archive of family letters, including all the early ones from Maggie describing, even, her taste in lingerie. This was a treasure-trove – saved for history by someone who accumulated sentimental stuff rather than discarded it.

Okay, we’re not all writing biographies of politicians or saving documents from great events like 1916: but I believe every family archive contains something valuable. When I think of the letters and documents that are “discarded”, and thrown away daily, I feel like weeping. There are several examples within my own family.

When an aunt of mine was, in frail old age, being moved into a care home, her stuff was piled into black bags by “helpful” social workers assisting with the move: I thought I had managed to salvage an entire black bag full of letters from her mother, my grandmother, who was a retired schoolteacher in Co Galway, an early member of Sinn Fein. But I failed. They all went to the dump. A family history wiped out.

On another occasion, a document of certain historical value was consigned to the bin. My uncle was taught, at Clongowes, by a remarkable priest called Father John Sullivan. This teacher wrote several encouraging and kindly letters to my uncle subsequently. But in a fit of “tidying” his wife threw them all out. Blazing rows followed and I think the incident was neither forgotten nor forgiven. Father John Sullivan was subsequently made a “venerable” by the Vatican, and is regarded as a major influence in Jesuit spirituality.

For tidying gurus like Marie Kondo, so many of these precious documents are just “paper”. That’s what she says about books. “Books are essentially paper”. No they’re not: books are a whole world, to be valued for themselves, a precious deposit of culture, memory and enlightenment. Yes, sometimes you do have to clear your shelves and give some away to a charity shop, but, as my mother-in-law used to say “The book you get rid of today is precisely the book you will need tomorrow.” She left not only wonderful books, but stimulating marginal notes pencilled into many of them.

On clothes, too, KonMari is wrong. She favours folding items like sweaters into drawers rather than hanging them, which looks tidy but strikes me as ridiculous; life’s too short, anyway, to fold a sock. Chucking out what you don’t wear makes no sense to those of us who yo-yo in weight and body size. We put our Size 12 frocks away for years with the aspiration that one day we’ll shrink back to them. I’ve sometimes returned to clothes I haven’t worn for five, even ten, years with renewed enthusiasm.  Old clothes, by the way, are now called “vintage”.

Yes, some of her advice is useful to anyone who is doing a spring clear-out – and clear-outs can be cleansing, I agree. But her overall philosophy should be approached with care. She admits that she has been obsessed with tidying since she was a child (to win her parents’ approval, she writes). She seems to have few other interests in life, which must narrow her vision. Indeed, she was so obsessed with tidying that she had a nervous breakdown as a student. She has expressed her fear that she might even “end up in hospital from too much tidying”.

Too much tidying sucks joy OUT of life, and far too many family memories have been consigned to the garbage by a misplaced tidying mania.