Before her Netflix series, patron saint of minimalism Marie Kondo first entered our lives through her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, teaching hoarders and people struggling to clean house how to let go of objects that didn’t bring them joy. With the recent release of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, suddenly everyone was following her mantra, clutching household items to see if there was a spark and, if not, cathartically discarding them.
I watched this obsession sweep through my social media feeds, my friends posting pictures of to-be-donated loot and freshly organized homes. Everyone buzzed with this downsizing energy, until they discovered an aspect of the KonMari Method that didn’t spark any joy whatsoever.
In keeping with her philosophy, Marie Kondo shared that she keeps her collection of books to “about thirty volumes at any one time,” recommending to her readers and viewers that they do the same. But she also acknowledged that “the act of picking up and choosing objects is extremely personal” and that people should go with their gut when it comes to their books—because unlike other clutter, books can serve as conduits for knowledge and imagination. But in the game of telephone that is the internet, something got misinterpreted somewhere and everyone assumed she meant everyone should only have 30 books. No exceptions.
The literary internet exploded: “You can have my books when you pry them from my cold dead hands!” Blogs and opinion pieces proliferated, full of indignant readers decrying this proclamation. A few voices finally managed to cut through the noise and set the record straight, but the manic frenzy had already exposed readers for what we really are: possessive lunatics who could let go of a lot of things, but refused to part with our books. Literary Gollums that wouldn’t let anyone take away our preciouses.
I understood and was sympathetic to this reaction; I too cherish my books. I’ve loved to read since childhood. But I also understood Marie Kondo’s point of view and rationale for keeping her book collection to a minimum. For the past few years, I’ve had, at most, five to 10 actual books in my personal library. Yes, you read that correctly, five to 10 books.
Shortly after college, I moved abroad. With a small moving budget and no job prospects, I had to discard most of my worldly possessions. To that end, I donated the vast majority of my rather large book collection. I did keep a few titles to take abroad, such as my signed copy of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a collection of haunting short stories by Jean McNeil.
I lived in Chile for three years, where books are very expensive, incomes are low, and the selection of English-language books is subpar. I knew I would eventually return to the States or move elsewhere—and when I did, I would once again need to downsize my library. So, during my time in Chile, I mostly abstained from buying physical books, relying instead on e-books.
At the end of 2018, the time came for another move and so, with a heavy heart, I turned to my solitary bookcase. On the top shelf sat my meager collection, the other shelves used to display photos and tchotchkes. There were 15 volumes in all: some new, some not.
I took down each book. I fanned the pages through my fingers, held it to my face, inhaled the scent. Stroking the spines, I recalled my personal history with each book: Where did I buy it, when did I read it, how did it impact me? Did it bring me joy?
In short: yes. They all brought me joy. So, that clearly couldn’t be my defining question. But what was the defining question and which books should stay with me?
There were some obvious keepers: the David Sedaris. A few books that would remind me of my time in Chile: a book about the art of Chilean bread, another of native folktales. The Jean McNeil.
Then came the cuts. The books I didn’t want to discard, but weren’t as special or important as others. The ones I hadn’t enjoyed. The titles that had made the trip to South America but wouldn’t return: my Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example. While I still loved the story, I no longer felt the need to bring the book back with me.
Some of my picks stayed the same even after years had passed, while others changed just as I and my tastes had changed. But, as I placed the books I was donating or selling into a separate pile, I noticed a sense of sorrow blanketing the proceedings. I was mourning my books. Why?
Why are we so attached to our books? As I held and decided the fate of each book, I kept coming back to this question. Why was I attached to these physical objects? Paper, binding glue, a cover. Fairly simple and commonplace. I knew I could easily find replacements for my discarded books, and that, with the exception of my David Sedaris—which he had autographed to me personally—the true connection I felt was to the stories themselves. The books were mere vessels. So why didn’t I want to part with them?
Readers, especially “avid” readers, aren’t exactly known for our rationality. We collect, covet, and guard books the way a dragon does jewels. There’s even a word for having too many books: tsundoku. We say it’s about constantly craving new stories and adventures. Discovering new authors. We justify the expenditures as the desire to financially support writers, publishers, our own neighborhood bookshop.
The simple answer for our attachment to books is that it’s about emotion. Reading a story is a deeply personal and intimate act: connecting or empathizing with the struggles of the characters; being swept along by the narrative; losing yourself in the descriptions of a landscape. And when our feelings get involved, rationality goes out the door. We conflate these physical objects with their stories —and our emotional reactions to those stories—making it harder to separate the two. Any object can be imbued with meaning by circumstance or association, but books more so because of what they contain and how stories speak to us.
“But it’s not just the story!” you may say. “It’s also about the book itself: the feel of its feathered pages, that old- or new-book smell, the weight of it in your bag.” Yes, a book is a divine object, timeless and yet finite in its physical state. A book can be lost, damaged, burned, but the story lives on. Maybe the book was a present from someone special. Maybe it was bought and read during a key life moment. All this can make it harder to separate the raw physicality of the book from the emotional pull of the story. The book is the story and the story is the book. And that’s the complex answer. I too love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but does that mean that I need it? I need the story, that’s why I bought the book. Shouldn’t it matter more the why of reading, not the how?
Living abroad and trying to keep my collection to a minimum while staying up to date with bestsellers and popular reads, I had to turn to e-books, which was a significant departure for me. I’d never been a fan of e-books, and at first I resisted them. I missed the feel of a book, the heft, the sense of satisfaction of slotting a bookmark into place, watching the slow march of pages falling from right to left as I read through the book, accumulating as more and more of the story was laid bare to me. But as I read more ebooks, I gradually understood and embraced their uses: they take up only virtual space, they’re cheaper, and infinitely easier to transport. Perfect for someone who isn’t ready to put down roots like me.
But many lit-lovers scoff at people who use e-readers or who have small book collections, arguing that they’re not real readers or not as “serious”—as if it’s a competition. And much of the culture around literature supports this obsessive book hoarding. The former Shelfari’s Compulsive Book Hoarders website (now merged with GoodReads) required members to have 1,000 books in their personal libraries before signing up. Readers on Instagram display their packed shelves with pride. We love to brag about how many books we have.
So, we can only be good readers and love books if we have a massive personal library? This exposes a blatantly materialist and classist side of book culture. When considering this, I’m reminded of a popular John Waters quote: “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” When I was younger I took this flawed concept to heart: I shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t have books because that means they don’t read, and if they don’t read they’re….what? The implication is that if someone doesn’t read, doesn’t have shelves of books in their home to display their intelligence, they’re uneducated and unsophisticated. It’s a very morally superior view, snobbish and condescending. And I reject that.
I’ve lived in a country where most people can’t afford to buy many—if any—books, and libraries aren’t readily accessible. But that doesn’t mean the people I met weren’t astute, engaged, thoughtful individuals. I have a partner who has never read the Harry Potter series—something I once considered a deal breaker due to their childhood significance for me—because they’re too expensive. The ability to own books does not dictate worth or intelligence.
I’ve completely reevaluated my relationship to books and reading in the past few years. I’ve constantly questioned my impulse to buy books, knowing that I’d likely need to discard them, weighing my desire to travel and save money against my love of books. I’ve had to find the balance. I’ve had to fight the urge to accumulate more and more, and instead prioritize story over form.
At the end of the day, I still struggle with it. I will probably always prefer real books. I want to buy a book at every bookstore I visit. My dream home does include a giant library with a cozy reading nook. But my attitude toward reading has matured. I have rejected elitist attitudes. I’ve gotten rid of hundreds of books in my short time on this earth, but that doesn’t mean I love books any less. It means I’m able to let objects go while still treasuring the lessons and morals they gave me. The important thing is that people read and learn. While I hated selling my books when preparing to leave Chile, I loved that I could sell them to other readers. Reading is a solitary act, but the love of reading and literature is communal. How stories get passed down has evolved many times, from spoken word to papyrus scrolls to paper to e-books. But what books convey to readers remains the same: a story, an idea, a transport to somewhere new.
If you want to have a giant library, have a giant library. Or not. It’s okay to only have a few books. Or no books. Or e-books. Let go of books or hold onto them. Do what works for you, just as I found a method that works for me, a flighty reader who has learned to appreciate the convenience of modern reading technology. What sparks joy for me is the act of reading itself and the pleasure and reflection it provides.
Image credit: Unsplash/Ed Robertson.
The first time I came across the word sluttish as a child, it was printed in a library book. I no longer remember what the book was, but I do remember immediately adding it to my mental list of words to look up in the dictionary when my parents weren’t looking. It’s what I did with sexual intercourse and bitch; it was what I’d done the day before with virgin.
When I felt brave enough, I pretended to need the dictionary for homework so I could sit on the floor and read it at the dance studio while my mom and I waited for my sister to finish tumbling class. Looking up sluttish would solve a dual mystery: the meaning of that word, but the meaning, too, of the one nestled inside it. I’d seen the word slut carved into the back of bathroom doors at gas stations and on the damp soft wood of my playground’s underbelly: I knew slut was profane in that context, but not why or what it meant. And if it was profane, what was its big sister, sluttish, doing in my children’s historical fiction? With one hand acting as shield, I moved the other down the page, my fingertips looking for sluttish and repeating the word in my head as I did so: that lush sillabant slu, like silk gliding across the floor of my mind; the laze and hiss of ish; the abundant tts hanging from the word’s middle as heavy as overripe fruit. The sounds made me feel excited and embarrassed. I found the word, hovered, read, read again.
As happened every time I brought the dictionary a word I dimly knew in my body to be both sexual and feminine, the definition I read only raised more questions. If sluttish described both a dirty, messy home and the low woman who failed to properly keep it, where did the sex of slut come in? How could virgin be a joke at school, an unfertilized animal, and part of the Holy Mother’s name? Why was bitch a swear word when Bruce Willis said it in Die Hard and not when Brontë wrote it in Wuthering Heights? When were these words bad words, and when were they good? This last question was the fundamental one. Like virgin, sluttish was a word that even as a child I knew applied, somehow to me—or could, if I wasn’t careful. If I didn’t stay tidy, keeping my body and its accoutrements within the limits of a small and acceptable space. If I didn’t keep clean.
Like a dirty, messy body, a dirty, messy house distresses because it (1) disrupts expected order and (2) expands beyond the limits of the space it’s allowed to take. Because it’s in contradiction with established social rules, we feel embarrassed when we see too much of one thing, whether that “thing” is dozens of packages of socks bought on discount—just in case—overflowing from a groaning dresser, or pubic hair growing well beyond a bikini’s line. And by “we,” I mean America: land of the super-size and Whole30, housing crisis and tiny houses. We’re embarrassed by what we see, but we’re interested, which is why shows like Hoarders, Intervention, Tiny House Hunters, The Biggest Loser, and most recently Tidying Up with Marie Kondo have gained popularity in the last decade. We like to see people lose control of their intimate, domestic spaces, whether that space is a home, a relationship, or a living body. But that’s not why we watch. We watch because we want collective reassurance that there is an established order to life that we all acknowledge and agree upon. If we break beyond that order, as so many on these shows do, not only are there clear stakes and punishment—ostracism, pain, humiliation, even death—but, according to the moral story these shows present, there is a clear, linear path back to regaining status: by taking control, or being perceived to do so.
Of course, there is no uniform “we” in America, no collective order “we’ve” all agreed upon that is fair and kind to all. Our various orders, from the police to education to health care to what “we’ve” decided a healthy body looks like, are all hierarchical, firmly grounded in exploitation and power, and profoundly destructive—especially to people whose bodies don’t fall into order: femmes, queers, trans people and women; the poor, disabled, the neurodivergent; anyone of any gender who reads as non-white. The creative work of Alok Vaid-Menon, the Unruly Bodies series curated by Roxane Gay, and the radical action of ADAPT are just a few examples of people, action, and art that interrogates damaging notions of ordered bodies while creating space, on the page or in the streets, where bodies are allowed to thrive and take up space according to their own innate sense of what’s needed, of what’s nourishing and good.
You can find examples of America’s obsession with intimate displays of expansion, retraction, and control in every decade of our history since European-indigenous contact: the expansion of states’ rights at the expense of the dignity, rights, and lives of the people those states enslaved; the rise of for-profit colleges even as overall enrollment in bachelor’s, associate’s, and certificate programs in recent years has declined. For now, I’ve put my own personal pin in the housing crisis of 2008, that time of McMansions and glutinnous suburbs: a boom of excess followed by a winnowing bust.
In 2008, I was newly 21, and my parents were in the process of losing their home. In 2009, I graduated from college and into a driftless economy, finally securing a part-time minimum wage job that October. Back home, my parents and siblings moved out of our house and into another that, until recently, had belonged to another large family. They, too, had been forced to declare bankruptcy. It was a few years before my mom was willing to paint over the red, yellow, green, and blue handprints of the children who’d played in the basement before hers and left proof of their presence on the stairwell wall.
Perhaps after moving repeatedly to escape rising rents or property taxes, early millennials first began to pare down, if only because it was too expensive to move our possessions over and over again. Or perhaps we tired of dragging them out in public, enduring the Craigslist or front-yard sale. Regardless of circumstance—medical bills, predatory loans, institutional racism, or plain old bad luck—losing our homes or moving into tinier and tinier apartments meant, for many of us, a repeal of our things. Though not for me; my boyfriend says I have the decorative tastes of a magpie. From where I’m sitting in my apartment (a one-bedroom, the first of my adult life after a decade of roommates and studios), I can count no fewer than six different patterns of fabric. I like my things. It feels, more and more, important for me to take up space. But I get it. The appeal of millennial domestic minimalism, for all its spareness, is broad: from those damn tiny houses to, I’d argue, the pristine patternless-basics of Everlane (Full disclosure: I’m sitting in a pair of Everlane underwear right now).
As we begin to age, American millennials, too, fall into that endless cycle of self-improvement focused on expansion and restriction. In its current iteration, a more-than-vague current of orientalism flows beneath dialogues around yoga (eternally yoga, always yoga, for every U.S. generation since the ’60s) and meditation apps; veganism and probiotics (miso and kimchi have seen a boost in sales, and thus a boost in price); Korean skin care practices (and products) and yes, keeping house.
Back to sluttishness: Before she was dirtied by sexual experience, a slut was a woman who couldn’t keep a neat house.
Slut’s wool: n. the fluff or dust left on the floor, etc., by a sluttish servant or person.
Slut’s-pennies: n. hard pieces in a loaf due to imperfect kneading of the dough.
Slut-hole: n. (also slut’s-hole) a…place or receptacle for rubbish.
Slut’s corner: n. a corner left uncleaned by a sluttish person.
When I was a child, I collected rocks by the pocketful because I felt a great and perhaps pathological empathy with the world. I kept bright bits of trash and candy wrappers in my room because I thought they were precious and beautiful. In my desk drawers lived the small legged discs that came in pizza boxes to protect the hot cheese from the cardboard’s oppression: I liked to pretend they were tiny tables for tiny pizza. When I had to empty my pockets before I was ready, or when I had to walk quickly rather than pick up every lone pebble I saw, I sobbed with my mouth open. Being from a large family, I couldn’t imagine anything lonelier than being a lone rock; that’s why I picked them up. I carried them for a while, my pockets sagging, until I found their families. In the meantime, while they waited for reunion, the rocks could talk to each other.
When I was a child, I had a great-aunt who wouldn’t stop eating and so had her mouth wired shut. But she was also, of course, sexually promiscuous, overgenerous with her body, heedless of the boundaries culture and time imposed upon her. I’m sure she was what we’d now call a hoarder. I’m sure, wherever she lived (and she moved a lot), she failed to properly clean her slut’s corner.
It’s a particularly white characteristic to take another culture’s practice and reinterpret it as a kind of house-diet, and in that, I am no exception. Many Americans fear disordered living, but also disordered eating, which is what I thought of the first time I encountered The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
The book was in the hands of a woman. “She says you thank the item with joy,” my friend said slowly, “and then give it away.” I knew this friend felt intense shame around messiness and clutter, and that it was emotionally difficult for her to get rid of anything that fell into the loose category of stuff. It didn’t matter if I loved her bedroom, or her, how they were; that wasn’t my call to make. I was glad to hear her consider a new way to approach tidying, a method that emphasized emotions rather than ignoring them; I also thought of our shared history of disordered eating and exercise, the winters when we both chewed cookies and spit them back out into garbage cans; enough to get the taste, not the calories.
Ever since that conversation with my friend, in the comfort of kitchens or online spaces that function as living rooms, I’ve listened to women recommend The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up with the enthusiasm that, at a younger age, they’d reserved for diet and exercise tips. It reminds me of how, back in college, I used to listen to young women joke about the weight-loss wonder of a cigarette and coffee dinner while I tied my shoes in the school gym. To lose more, to keep less, and better fit the silhouette shape of woman. To be unencumbered by mess, or memory.
To be clear, this is not a critique of the KonMari method or of Marie Kondo, but an attempt to understand why the women I know are passing along clothes-folding techniques in their 30s like they did laxative pills in their 20s. We’re possessed by a desire to shed clothes and belongings like weight, so that we might be smaller, sparer, in control of our various appetites. That we might take up less space. This is not a use of Kondo’s techniques and advice, but an abuse, much the way we once abused exercise, amphetamines, laxatives: necessary medicines for many, but twisted in our hands. This is about us: the American viewer and reader, and what, in our eternal binge and purge of things, ideas, and people, we demand of the bodies and habits of others, especially when they fall out of line.
Women of all castes have historically been tied tightly to the home, whether we’re having our house cleaned, we’re cleaning our house, or we’re cleaning someone else’s. While that hierarchy is based in classism and racism, it seems to me like 21st-century women are still evaluated by the standards of the 19th-century Cult of Domesticity, a U.S. and U.K. values system obsessed with defining “true womanhood” via a woman’s perceived possession of the following traits: domesticity, submissiveness, piety, and purity. It only makes sense that today, many women in America have fully digested the idea that their homes are their reflections. Keeping a slim home demonstrates intelligence and control, keeps us youthful, “classic,” lithe.
The emotional release of paring down, getting rid of, and (re)gaining control is a milestone achievement, and I do not question or criticize people for whom the move to minimalism has brought peace or joy. I’m just nervous of anything that overtly praises people in general, and women in particular, for taking up less space.
As a child, every word that made me feel that prick of curiosity, attraction, dawning identification and fear got the dictionary treatment. With it, I wanted to understand and order my world. To bring order to the chaos of learning and living, yes, but also order to my body and its sluttish possibilities; to my gender and how others perceived it. I longed to understand what these words—words that would, I knew in my blood, someday apply to my body, my life, and the way I live it or was supposed to—meant. With that knowledge, I believed I would finally know the answer: am I bad, or good?
Image credit: Unsplash/Onur Bahçıvancılar.
Emily Barton, Alexander Chee, and I all published new novels this year: The Book of Esther, The Queen of the Night, and The Good Lieutenant, respectively. None of us had published anything in 10 years or more. Working so long on a book is a scary proposition in the supposedly “fast-paced” media culture of the 21st century. But it happens more often than one might think. The three of us sat down to share strategies and retrace our steps in the hope that our experiences might provide a practical map — or at least give some hope — to other writers engaged in a long work. Here are our notes on a decade in the literary wilderness.
Whitney Terrell: What was the moment when you came closest to giving up on your book? Why didn’t you?
Emily Barton: I sent my agent an early, complete draft of the book to read in the summer of 2011, and he said he had some comments. So one morning in Brooklyn, on alternate-side-of-the-street-parking day, I took my phone, a notebook, and a pen into the car. I called him up and sat by the side of Prospect Place for an hour, listening to his thoughts. As always, he was an astute and generous reader; but it was an early draft and it had raised many questions for him. I understood his questions, yet at the time I didn’t know how to answer them or forestall them for other readers. So I took a break to think about what to do. As it turned out, that break ended up lasting quite a while. One day after 13 or 14 months of thinking, I at last had a good enough idea about how to address those questions. I felt confident I could sit down and work on the book. It did seem like a long fallow period, though. I never thought I had given up on the book, but it was a long stretch of quiet.
WT: It’s interesting to me that Emily describes the 13 or 14 months she took off after talking to her agent as quiet. I finished a complete draft in the spring of 2011, turned it in to the publisher of my first two books, and they passed. The period after that was, for me, exactly the opposite of quiet, at least inside my head. I went into a sort of manic recovery mode. There were five or six or seven different “plans” for fixing the book over the next year — each was, in retrospect, fairly desperate and ill-considered, sort of like a play that I was drawing up in the dirt. I remember long, long, long phone calls with very patient friends just jabbering on and on about how I was going to fix the book. Or how I wouldn’t and was doomed. When I wasn’t talking to friends, this dialogue would be internal. It felt like I had a television playing inside my head and I couldn’t figure out how to get quiet. It seems obvious now that these were panic attacks.
But I didn’t know that at the time. Or that one shouldn’t be having panic attacks all day while you write. I wanted to quit the book on a daily basis during this period, because when you’re having a panic attack, you’ll do anything to get it to stop.
Alexander Chee: As the years went by at first I was calm. Having studied with writers like Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson, Frank Conroy, who had taken over a decade each with some of their books, I thought I was fine. But they had tenure. In my case I had chosen a visiting writer life and I was very aware every year that I didn’t finish the book how it affected my ability to get a new job, get a grant, etc. I had this feeling, whether or not it was real, that every year was a decline. The darkest part of the writing of the novel was 2012, in the winter, when I was in Leipzig and it seemed like my mom’s health was in trouble, and that she was starting to lose her memory.
It was also just a lonely dark winter in Germany, the darkest winter in their recorded history. The sun came out in Berlin at one point, my friends there said, and people screamed because it had been so long. I really enjoyed being at Leipzig in a lot of ways, but I was having this feeling of just failing the novel, failing myself, failing my family, failing my partner who was tired of feeling a widow to the book. Every month I wasn’t done seemed like a sort of horrible affirmation of my own failures as a person and as a writer. And then every problem in the manuscript became a problem with my life. The feeling of total failure drove me into kind of excessive work on it that was not to its benefit. I was working on it all of my free time. And it was making my partner feel crazy that he had this person who was both in his life and not in his life. And so I did imagine that winter what it would be like to be free of it. To just stop and write something easier.
WT: I had a period like that. It was also the summer that I had to start using glasses for the first time because I just burned my eyes out, reading stuff obsessively, not a healthy way of working. I wasn’t really making any progress either.
EB: Is the fact that I don’t do that a gender difference? I am really unable. I’m the mom of two little kids who need me so badly. No matter how deep I am in work, I just have to turn off at 4:30. Except for this magical two weeks when I went to Yaddo, when my older son was about two and a half — and I did spend the first two days crying because I missed him so much — which allowed me to finish the first draft of this novel. Other than that, I go get the kids and I cook them dinner and I’m their mother for the rest of the day; I’m their mother until their lunches are packed and their teeth are brushed and they’ve been taken to their school and daycare in the morning. I envy that feeling of total concentration, and at the same time I feel that I get to hold on to this little piece of my sanity because I don’t have it. I am always aware that there’s another option besides obsessive work. Writing my first book when I was young and single, I could disappear into my apartment for two weeks, and who even knew where I was? That’s not the case anymore.
AC: That makes sense. I’m thinking of my friend Sabina Murray who is in a similar situation as a working writer and professor and a mom who, she just writes whenever she has time and is completely un-neurotic about it and has been incredibly productive that way. I’ve been allowed this kind of neurotic obsession essentially because I’m a man, because I don’t have kids. And I don’t think it is even to my benefit.
WT: That’s an interesting question. Like Emily, the day ends for me when the kids come home from school and then there’s dinner and screwing around and then putting them to bed. But I just felt like I wasn’t present for those moments even if I was physically there. I was kind of like mentally sick, thinking about the book all the time instead. Even if I was with them, I wasn’t about to detach in a helpful way. It sounds like you were able to do that.
EB: I walk away. I put it to bed. And at the end of the day, I leave myself notes in brackets for whatever I’m working on: plans for what I’ll do the next day. If I don’t do that, when I come back in the morning, I have no memory at all of what I was thinking I’d do. I’ve gone to another world, which is the real world.
WT: I would like to have that ability. I think that sounds like a nice ability to have.
Were there changes in your life — in terms of time, work, personal life, writing itself — that made the work on this book different than previous books?
AC: The first big change was that when my first novel appeared, I was an untested nobody, a debut author. The first novel took two years to find someone to buy it. Queen of the Night sold in nine days as a partial in 2005, so I wrote it with advance money as well as two grants, the Whiting and the NEA, and many residencies, so it was really different in just about every respect. I also had the anxiety of failing to live up to readers and critics in a new way. It is why that second novel can be so hard to write. You get all of these people in your head.
And the second change was when I partnered with Dustin. When he and I got together, I had to stop being that person who just woke up and wrote and was home all day alone. Suddenly someone was there. Luckily Dustin doesn’t like to talk in the morning. And he’ll also sleep in later than me. That sort of works to my advantage in that sense. But definitely, even though I was still really obsessive, I was still making space for a person in this way that was entirely new to my life and my writing life. And I don’t think I would have made it without his love and support.
EB: So much changed during those years. I got married. We moved five times. We had two children; both difficult pregnancies, and then of course once that period ends, if you are fortunate you have a child: infancy, nursing, sleep deprivation, daycare (or lack thereof), school, activities, challenges. I’ve also been working as a fancy adjunct during this time period. This means I’ve been fortunate to be teaching at good programs, but always on contingent contracts, with no job security. So during the 10 years since my last book appeared, I’ve taught at six schools. The farthest was a four-and-a-half-hour drive from my house; for five years, I drove two-and-a-half hours each way once or twice a week. Sometimes I’ve taught at three schools concurrently: managed those commutes (and non-intersecting academic calendars; and overlapping service responsibilities at all the institutions) while managing the kids and/or a difficult pregnancy; and then also scrounging up time to write. To me, the wonder is that I managed to write any book at all under these circumstances. I require stretches of uninterrupted time to manage the arc of character and story. What’s changed is that it’s become more difficult to find the time to fulfill those kinds of ambitions.
WT: My wife and I had our first child just a few months before I published my last novel The King of Kings County, in August of 2005. I’d say for the next three or four years after he was born, I wasn’t really serious about writing. I was enjoying having a child. I’d also been really chained to Kansas City during those first two books. I’d been really broke most of the time. But I had a slightly better job then and my wife had an actual legitimate job, with health care, as a professor. We spent a summer in New York. I was accepted for a fellowship. We met new people, made new friends. I was no longer “alone” as a writer. Now I was part of a group of three, and then a group of four, when our second son was born in 2010.
But in the end, finally, the only way I finished the book out was to resort to obsessive, isolating work habits that were extremely difficult for both my wife and my kids. In other words, people get in the way of writing, dang it.
AC: If only we could just be brains in a jar of fluid with electricity shooting through it.
What was the greatest benefit to spending 10 years writing a book?
WT: For me, there really wasn’t a benefit. I mean, I don’t really see how things wouldn’t have been better if I’d just written the book more quickly. That said, the friendships I relied on when I was really in trouble and worried are the best thing to come out of this period. I’d always imagined that if I admitted that I was having trouble with a book, other writers would turn away and avert their gaze. They’d be embarrassed for me. They might feel sorry for me. But they would also (so I feared) sort of edge me out of the circle of writers. Not consciously or maliciously. But simply because any real writer wouldn’t be having trouble like this. I’d be marked as unfit in some way.
But instead, many writers I talked to — once I started being honest about how much I was struggling with my book — told me that they, too, had had exactly the same experience. For instance, Margot Livesey. She’d been my professor back in graduate school in 1993. At the time, she’d seemed to me so . . . collected. Powerful. In control. But she told me that actually, at that time, she’d been working on a book that would eventually become Eva Moves the Furniture. And she’d been at a loss over how to write that book and would not in fact publish it until 2001, having worked on it for some 12 years. It was also helpful to know that, despite this long gestation, it turned out to be a stunning book.
And she is just one example. This isn’t something that you hear discussed or praised much these days, but other writers do support each other. Their community is real and valuable. I wouldn’t have made it through this book without them.
AC: I remember my agent said something like, “Maybe we’ll be able to fix publishing by the time your second book comes.” [general laughter] I know, right? For me the only benefit was that I had built up this online presence, a social media presence, that I think helped in the selling and promotion of the novel — by which I mean a dedicated and supportive audience on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Instagram — all those things that I was doing, starting circa 2004 and on, things that people assured me we’re just a waste of time. I never really believed them despite much ambivalence. It’s true, it wasn’t the same as only working on a novel, but it definitely helped create an infrastructure for the novel to appear inside of. That eventually meant I had an audience that had been following me along the way in the writing of the novel, and I’m very grateful to those readers.
Otherwise I would say, in just about every other respect, I started saying about a year ago that it wasn’t worth it to spend that much time on the novel — that it would never be worth it. All the ruined family vacations, all the missed time with my mother and my partner, my nieces and nephews who grew up with me essentially a silent figure in the family’s background. But I am thinking that way less now.
EB: I didn’t spend 10 years on this book, exactly. Four of those years, I was working on a different book. About six years ago, I “took a break” from it to write this one. So in some ways it feels to me as if I spent a perfectly normal amount of time writing the book, even though I’m aware it may not look that way to other people.
The benefit to having 10 years between Brookland and The Book of Esther — and I agree with you, Whit, that things might have been better in many ways if I’d written it more quickly — is my increased maturity as a writer and as human being. The book as I’ve written it now reflects a kind of nuance that it couldn’t have 10 years ago. Also, I’ve been teaching all that time, which means I’ve worked with many and diverse young writers. I’ve come to understand their ambitions, collaborated with them to find solutions to problems that arise . . . and those aims, and the difficulties those writers face, can differ from my own. So my students have broadened my perspective, given me more tools for my toolkit, raised questions I myself might never have asked.
WT: A number of technological milestones occurred during, or just before, the time we spent writing these books: in 2004 Google went public and Facebook was launched, in 2006 Twitter was created, in 2007 the first iPhone went on sale. Now that we’ve all released our books, how did technology change the process of introducing them to the public? What’s different between this time and the last time that you had a book out?
EB: One thing that’s different is the decline of the newspaper as a regional news source. When each of us had a last book published, there were more numerous vibrant, powerful regional news sources; and now that Clear Channel has corporatized radio, there are fewer local talk shows on the radio. Ten years ago, when you were touring, the local paper would write a piece about your book, and you’d talk to the local radio host to gather interest for your event. I’m lucky to live in a place where we have great local news and talk radio, yet these have become more the exception than the norm.
AC: The first thing I thought of was of how, in the cover approval process, the cover has to look good as a thumbnail and so does your author photo. I think we’re in a really funny place with e-books where, I don’t know if e-books have supplanted anyone’s books, it seems to me readers are a very specific kind: the people who read paperbacks don’t usually buy hardbacks and vice versa and I feel like e-books brought in, actually, new readers who only wanted to read e-books — so often men would say this to me during the days the Kindle was blowing up: “I had stopped reading but it is so easy with e-books.” I don’t think that’s necessarily all people with e-readers, but I think for many, the convenience made a difference and brought them back.
WT: We kind of went through a cycle where e-books looked like they were going to take over and now actually print has been making a comeback over the last year or two and sales have been rising in print and flattening for e-books.
AC: My students hate e-books, they don’t want to read them. I was teaching at NYU in Florence this summer and there was a snafu and all of the books had to be e-books and the students were really upset. No one was like “Woo, e-books!”
EB: That’s funny to me. I’m a device agnostic reader. I buy hardcovers, I buy paperbacks, I check books out at the library, I’ll read them on my Kobo or my phone. It’s all good. I like to read.
AC: More is more, for me too.
EB: More is more!
AC: Even though there has been a decline in local radio stations, as Emily noted, there is something I’ve noticed with independent bookstores in these different regions. They sort of function the way those local papers did. They’re community centers and the social media presences for those local bookstores, if they have them, are quite robust. So, for example, when I’m scheduling bookstore events, it’s a plus if a bookstore has a big social media following because it makes the footprint of the event bigger. It reaches more readers than an event with no social presence at all.
WT: I noticed that too. It was neat to come into a town when you’re going to read and see that the bookstore has been tweeting about the fact that you’re going to read. That’s a completely new thing and that’s fun and cool.
EB: And the rise of great literary blogs — Maud Newton, and Ron Hogan of GalleyCat were pioneers — has helped foster community too.
AC: I wondered, Emily, this is your first year on Twitter. Are you having a reasonable good literary experience with this book?
EB: I’m having a really great literary experience with Twitter. It’s a total pleasure to be in communication with the broader community of writers on this platform. My experience with readers on it has been positive too; people tweet about my book, or tweet me questions, and I’ve been glad to engage in conversation. Also I’m entranced with the “catching up with old friends” part of it. That’s part of Facebook too, but Facebook has at a certain level devolved into various competing screeds in a way that Twitter has not.
WT: Really? I thought everyone saw Twitter as the sewer and Facebook as the friendly place.
AC: I think it all depends on your Twitter community and I do think that literary Twitter is pretty decent as a place to be. Facebook in general to me can feel like a wedding that has gone on too long. Everyone is drunk and making speeches and interrupting each other and fights are breaking out.
WT: Could you ever imagine working on something for this long again? What was the biggest discovery you made while writing the book and what was the biggest mistake?
AC: I can’t imagine spending this much time on another book. I will be 65 if I do that. I would really like to write a lot more things by the time I’m 65 than this. I have four distinct novel ideas that I would like to get accomplished by 65.
The biggest change was probably that I realized that the Franco-Prussian War had to matter as did the Paris Commune, and the Siege. There wasn’t any way around it and so the novel had to engage very seriously with war in a way I had not anticipated and I think, in my mind it changed from being a 250 page novel about opera and romances into something much bigger. The biggest surprise? That was probably the discovery of Pauline Viardot-Garcia as a character and her relationship with Ivan Turgenev and her husband Louis Viardot and the sort of odd three-way relationship they had which was very much centered on her and her genius as an artist and a teacher.
The biggest mistake I made was that at one point I did an edit that took out all the chronological jumps, I made it a chronologically direct novel and it was a huge and redundant bore.
One last fun question: did you have a favorite method of procrastination? Something you would do when you felt really anxious about the writing or needed a break from it.
WT: I’ll give you mine, which is that I have a backyard that is filled with weeds, constantly, and we don’t spray it or anything and so I sat in that yard and by hand weeded little odd bits of not-grass out of it for thousands of hours while writing this book. For some reason that was a mindless, soothing thing I could do when I was most stressed or stuck. And it’s something I’ll always associate with this book.
EB: I like to tidy up my office especially, but I will, if pressed, tidy all kinds of things. In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo espouses a particular method for folding clothes and organizing them in drawers. If I feel stressed I will go do this — I start with my own drawers, but really I’d happily do anyone’s. I could do yours. I did both of my kids’ the other day. They’re little, and they, you know, fling things at the drawers, yank them out haphazardly and shove them back in. So, I went in and folded all the pajamas and took away ones that didn’t fit anymore, put seasonally appropriate pajamas in the front and others in the back, and it was so satisfying. Also, they were both happy to see their socks in pairs, that kind of thing. I’m sure you don’t have to look too hard for the psychology of what we’re doing here. When the novel is unruly — when it exemplifies the universe’s movement toward entropy — you know that there is one form of order that you can restore things to, which is a state of weedlessness or of folded pajamas.
AC: Or make elaborate breakfasts. That’s what I did. Kimchee fried rice, with fried eggs on top. There wouldn’t be just kimchee in the fried rice there’d be bacon or hot dogs or seaweed or sweet potatoes or kale. Breakfast that took at least an hour, hour and a half to prepare start to finish.
EB: I don’t know about you guys, but my breakfast is often a triple espresso and the crusts of sandwiches children have abandoned. So Alex, I feel that that act of self-care could have great benefits for your writing day.
AC: I also make breakfast for Dustin. He likes these yogurt and oatmeal and fruit parfaits. We make them in Mason jars in advance and I’ll make him like four in advance and he’ll go through them when I’m not around. That way, if I’m busy writing and he wakes up and wants to eat. He’s terrible at making himself breakfast, so it’s a little like folding pajamas for somebody.
I often spend a lot of the day in terror of writing and needing to calm down and then I return to a place where the terror abates enough for me to do the writing, that’s why those gestures happen first.
WT: I was drinking so much coffee in the mornings and also having panic attacks that by lunchtime I would be a complete wreck. So I’d start off very optimistically and by noon I’d be like, I gotta burn everything and this is all a disaster and I’d have to go out and weed for two hours to calm down. I figured out that maybe drinking a little less coffee would be helpful.
EB: I had a moment in graduate school when I couldn’t stop shaking one day and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Then I realized I had drunk 16 cups of coffee. That was what was wrong with me.
Pressure is low late in the afternoon. If you can get all your errands done and do all the things you have to do, and if you have one hour left before you have to get the kids, you can say, “Whatever, I’ll do what I can do in an hour.”
AC: You can do so much in an hour.
EB: You can do SO much in an hour. There’s something to that. Your time is up, so you do what you can and let go.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
As the year winds down, it’s a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most notable pieces from The Millions during the year. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2015:
2. Our star-studded Year in Reading was a big hit across the internet.
3. Our own Nick Ripatrazone wrote, “Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season.” Many readers followed along; bookmark this for 2016.
4. It’s hard enough to write a book, but then they expect you to come up with a title. Our own Janet Potter came up with a sure-fire, never-fail strategy to title your next masterpiece and the one after that too.
5. Pansexual Free-for-All: My Time As A Writer of Kindle Erotica: It’s a brave new world for writers on the make. Matthew Morgan tried his hand in the weird, wild world of self-published erotica and in the process introduced us to “shape-shifter sex creatures that could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales” and other oddities.
6. The Art of the Chapter: Jonathan Russell Clark authored a series of essays for us exploring each element that makes up a book from the epigraph to the final sentence. His piece on chapters dove deep into the choices authors make in how they divide up their books.
7. Scenes From Our Unproduced Screenplay: ‘Strunk & White: Grammar Police’: “It’s ‘whom,’ motherfucker.” Juliana Gray and Erica Dawson penned a screenplay for grammar lovers.
8. Get to Work: On the Best Advice Writers Ever Received: An illuminating round-up from Sarah Anne Johnson. “I recently spoke with a range of authors who shared the best piece of writing advice they ever received. Some answers were brief and memorizable, some were longer and drew me into the author’s world and creative process.”
9. The Audacity of Prose: Booker Prize shortlister Chigozie Obioma penned a forceful and convincing defense of the idea that when it comes to writing, “more is more.”
10. To Fall in Love with a Reader, Do This: From our own Hannah Gersen, “Several months ago, The New York Times published an essay about a 36-question interview devised to make strangers fall in love. The questions presented here are designed with a more modest goal: to have an interesting conversation about books.”
11. The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels: Meredith Turits invited six authors to look back on their first novels, and they gave us a delightful mixture of nostalgia, awe and confusion.
12. How Will I Live? Fame, Money, Day Jobs, and Fiction Writing.: Gina Fattore wondered if the wrong “day job” can erase the career of a would-be successful novelist before it even starts.
13. It’s Not You, It’s Us: Apartment Hunting in Brooklyn: In maybe the funniest piece we ran all year, David Staller tries to find an affordable apartment in Brooklyn without getting murdered, or worse.
14. The Admiral in the Library: The Millions Interviews James Stavridis: The Millions ran dozens of interviews with leading literary lights in 2015. Who would have guessed that our most popular sit-down was to be with a remarkably well read and introspective retired admiral. Marcia DeSanctis was our intrepid interviewer for this fascinating conversation.
15. Father’s Day Books for Dads Who Actually Read: Our own Michael Bourne guides you past the neckties to find the book that will delight your literary pop.
16. Dispatches From the Content Factory: On the Rise and Fall of the New Creative Class: All those tech unicorns need writers – sometimes a lot of them. Irene Keliher gave us a chilling firsthand account of the tech economy’s creative underclass.
17. The Joy of Crewnecks: Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’: Marie Kondo’s call to clear out your closets became something of a cultural phenomenon this year. Janet Potter clued us in early.
18. The Millions 2015 Gift Guide for Readers, Writers and the People Who Love Them: I bet you had no idea that a squirrel in underpants is the perfect gift for the literary critic in your life.
19: Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: US Vs. Netherlands: Our own Claire Cameron pointed out some very cool book covers happening in the Netherlands.
20: A Future for Books Online: Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club: Our own Elizabeth Minkel introduced us to a vibrant community of readers congregating on tumblr.
There are also a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2015 but continued to find new readers.
1. The Starting Six: On the Remarkable Glory Days of Iowa Girls Basketball: Lawrence Tabak’s piece on the basketball variant that was once an Iowa obsession.
2. Read Me! Please!: Book Titles Rewritten to Get More Clicks: Ah clickbait, those snippets of twisted English pumped full of hyperbole and lacking in specificity, a concoction designed to wring maximum clicks from readers. Our own Janet Potter and Nick Moran pondered how some literary classics might have employed this same strategy. The results are hilarious… and terrifying.
3. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Our own Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.
4. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner’s uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles.
5. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.
6. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: Yet another of Hartnett’s roundtables asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.
7. 55 Thoughts for English Teachers: “All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade.” Our own Nick Ripatrazone with some powerful reflections on teaching high school English.
8. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.
9. A Year in Reading 2014: 2014’s series stayed popular in 2015.
10. How To Introduce an Author: We’ve all seen them – awkward, long-winded, irrelevant – bad author introductions mar readings every day in this great country of ours. For three years now, would be emcees have been turning to Janet Potter’s guide on how to not screw up the reading before it even starts.
Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2015:
I was excited about contributing to this list until I remembered that I mostly read celebrity memoirs and self-help books this year.
But Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach really did help me — to be kinder to myself, and to better manage stress.
I finally read A Confederacy of Dunces. I wanted to know if it was as good as everyone says, and I think it’s better. I can’t remember the last time I was so entertained by a book. I demand that the stage production with Nick Offerman come to New York.
I got really into audiobooks this year. I listened to The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills on the way to do an event with her at the Boston Book Festival, and I loved it. It’s such a smart investigation of sex in our culture, and of the significance and shame we assign to sex. Hills uses research and interviews to examine and comment on the assumptions we make about sex, and the differences between those assumptions and reality. Takeaway: your sex life, or lack thereof, is more normal than you think.
Like millions of others, I feel that I am friends with Amy Poehler. I had very high expectations for her book, and worried that I was setting myself up for disappointment. But Yes Please was everything I dreamed of — it’s so smart, so funny, and it was a pleasure to listen to Poehler (and her guests) read.
I listened to Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, which is comforting about dating in the same way The Sex Myth is about sex. Daters will be glad to hear that dating really is harder than it was for past generations, so it’s (probably) not you. The upside is that our willingness to search for a soul mate (as opposed to settling for a “good enough” mate) makes it more likely that we’ll find one. It’s fascinating to learn about the very different dating scenes in other countries, and Ansari and co-author Eric Klinenberg give some good advice, including: stop sending lame messages (“Hey”), be strategic about where you look for dates (Ansari writes, “I was staying out like a lunatic and complaining that I only met lunatics. I realized if I was going to try to find someone to settle down with, I had to change the way I was going about my search. Instead of bars and clubs, I’d do things that I’d want a theoretical girlfriend to be into.”), and give your dates a chance — go on more second dates.
I listened to Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things while I cleaned my house, and it put a little extra pep in my step. But ultimately it was calming — the hoarding case studies made me feel great about the “creative” state of my house. Obviously I also read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and spent the year going through all of my things to see if they sparked joy (which resulted in the mess I am now “tidying up”).
And last but the opposite of least, I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and cried.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In this episode, Janet and Mike get into the holiday spirit by discussing their literary regrets. Also, check out their Christmas trees!
Discussed in this episode: “My Way” by Paul Anka, Festivus, Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dune by Frank Herbert (which still sucks), Dune (dir. David Lynch), unearned positive reviews, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, book critic detectives, The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Elena Ferrante.
Cut for time from this episode: We riffed on Dune for a good 15 minutes.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.
Between the World and Me
A Little Life
Go Set a Watchman
Book of Numbers
Fates and Furies
City on Fire
The Heart Goes Last
A Brief History of Seven Killings
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about de-cluttering and organizing, just became the 102nd title to join our ever-more-cluttered Hall of Fame, which feels appropriate. Meanwhile, two titles – Satin Island and The Paying Guests – fell out of this month’s Top Ten, despite strong showings for the past four months.
As a result, three spots have opened up for newcomers, so let’s take a look at these fresh new faces:
This month’s seventh spot belongs to David Mitchell’s latest project, Slade House, which got its start as a Twitter-based short story last year. (We published the story in full.) Now expanded into a 256-page book, Slade House, spans across five decades, focusing on a mysterious residence down the road from a British pub, and the people who live within – or are invited to.
Next on the list is Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, which is surely familiar by now to anyone who a) reads this site, and b) doesn’t live beneath a rock. (Psssst! You can read its opening lines over here.) At 944 pages, this doorstop provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of its closely-observed subjects. As Brian Ted Jones remarked in his review for The Rumpus:
It’s not a big novel about the human condition. It’s a novel that word by word reaches out to capture the smallness of life, the minute particularity that stacks up until—whoa, baby—you’ve got a whole universe on your hands, but a universe that flies away like a pile of dirt in a strong wind.
And that level of observation does not come easily, as Hallberg himself noted in his interview with our own Lydia Kiesling:
Writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”
Man, that must’ve been a fun way to feel for the five years it took to write the book, huh?
Finally, this month we also welcome newly-minted Booker Award winner Marlon James to our Top Ten. His third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, concerns Jamaica at a pivotal moment in its history, and really the history of its relationship with the United States as well, but also it’s about so much more: Bob Marley, CIA machinations, international drug dealers, race, family, friendship, journalism, and art. To call this novel ambitious is to undersell it. If I can be bold for a moment, allow me to say this: James’s novel is the best book I’ve read in years. Heck, even our resident video-bloggers, Michael Schaub and Janet Potter, were rendered speechless by it.
Marie Kondo has a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way. She’s a lifestyle celebrity in Japan, and her finely-tuned method is spelled out in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
Kondo’s philosophy is that you should only own things that you love, that everything else is just wasting both physical and emotional space. Although some of her advice can be eyebrow-raising (you’ll see), I decided to commit, following her advice to the letter one Saturday in January.
You start with your clothes. Kondo has you take every piece of clothing you own out of your closet and dresser and pile them on your bed. Then you pick up each item one by one and gauge your emotional reaction to it. Only items that “spark joy” in your heart when you’re holding them in your hands get to stay.
Kondo does concede that discerning the joy levels of your clothing can be hard at first, but she also says that you develop your gauge as you go, which turned out to be true. I started holding my skirts out in front of me and kind of being like, “This might be joy?” But after a few minutes I got to my navy silk dress with the little teacups printed on it, and sparks flew. After that epiphany, I essentially gauged my reaction to each item in comparison to my reaction to the dress. For instance, at one point I found myself trying to coax some joy out of a grey pencil skirt, because ladies’ media has told me I should own one in black and grey, but then I realized that said skirt had nothing on what I felt for the teacup dress, and it was out of my life.
This is what sets Kondo’s method apart from your average declutter. You’re not merely rooting out the stuff you could get by without, you’re winnowing down to what you truly want to keep. Now I have a closet that basically smacks me in the face with joy every morning.
Once you’ve done your clothes, you go through the rest of your possessions by category — books, then papers, toiletries, electronics, household goods, photos, and your kitchen. The joy meter becomes less relevant to some of these — after all, necessities like my phone charger, prescriptions, and apartment lease don’t light me on fire — but the guiding principle remains the same. You consider everything you own item by item, and decide whether or not you have a compelling reason to keep it.
In this way, the tidying process is a “dialogue with yourself,” as “the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
Kondo has helpful insight into each category’s parameters: books — “‘sometime’ means ‘never;’” papers — “discard everything;” gifts — “the person who gave it to you doesn’t want you to use it out of a sense of obligation, or to put it away without using it.” But everybody will have different hang-ups about different categories. Since I knit, sew, do pottery, and am generally crafty, I was hanging on to a lot of stuff just because I had made it. A few years ago I knit myself a sweater that turned out ugly and didn’t fit. I legit hate that sweater, but it was in my dresser for two years because the yarn was expensive and I spent months on it. With Kondo in my head, it made no sense to keep something that sparked hate and remorse rather than joy. Tossing it into a hefty bag, on the other hand, was pure joy.
And let’s be honest about this — this is a joy that comes from privilege. The subtext of Kondo’s advice, which is never stated, is that you have plenty and always will. I don’t remember if she mentions money in the book, but if she does it would only be to say that monetary value is a bad reason to keep something. She does say that one of the reasons her book is necessary is that tidying up isn’t a life skill that parents teach to their children like cooking or finances. In my case, at least, it’s not that my parents didn’t teach me about handling my possessions, it’s just that they were teaching me opposite values. I grew up in a house, as did my parents before me, in which pennies were pinched, both out of necessity and the belief that it was morally superior behavior. The slightest hint of past, present, or future utility would be reason enough to keep something, no matter how unloved it was.
As I was talking to my friends about going through Kondo’s book, most of them had the same perspective. We live in different economic circumstances than our parents did — summed up neatly by the fact that at my age my mom was married with three kids, whereas I spent a solid 40 minutes this morning researching how best to cover up a bald spot in my eyebrows — but we still use their model of consumer behavior. I didn’t want to use Kondo’s book as a way to shuck everything they taught me about the value of money and things, but as a guide to applying those values to my own situation.
And while she never mentions this either, Kondo’s book has the potential to make you a smarter consumer. In the month since I decluttered, I’ve noticed that I’m less tempted to buy new things. Because my apartment is only filled with things I love, I can’t imagine bringing home a new sweater because it’s kind of cute. Imagine how inferior it would feel in my carefully curated closet! New things have to meet a higher standard to seem like a justifiable purchase, and in this way a massive purge can be read as thrifty behavior — unless these are just rationalization gymnastics because I could picture the horrified look on my mom’s face when I got rid of the handmade sweater.
Kondo says that we keep things for one of three reasons: their functional, informational, or emotional value. But most of the time we’re lying to ourselves about that value. Any time I was hesitating over whether to keep something, I would ask myself which of those values I perceived in it, and then call my own bluff.
Why do you want to keep these ugly pink and black plaid note cards?
Because I might use them.
Why do you want to keep this change purse?
It was a gift and I like it.
Why do you have this packet of reading materials from college?
Because someday I might want to brush up on the history of the Russian intelligentsia.
I did, at some point, start yelling KONDO! every time I tossed something onto the throwaway pile. It was a long day. According to the book, I was supposed to be wearing my favorite outfit and listening to soothing music. I was wearing my pajamas and listening to Guns N’ Roses, but I have to think at some level Kondo would just want me to do me.
But I don’t know, Kondo’s a little hard to pin down. She’s simultaneously a hard-line pragmatist and a far-out child of the moon. For every no-nonsense truth she lays down — “storage experts are hoarders” — she comes out with an impassioned plea to stop balling up your socks — “This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they get any rest like that?’”
As she tells it, she’s been passionate about tidying since she was a child, staying in at recess to tidy the classroom instead of playing with other kids, reading lifestyle magazines, and getting in trouble for reorganizing her family’s closets. This lifelong, single-minded devotion to tidying has made her advice the best around, but also might have loosened her relationship to normalcy. I don’t follow her advice to kneel down and thank my apartment for keeping my possessions safe when I get home in the evening, for example, but I’m really glad I got rid of the table lamps I wasn’t using.
The only time I truly wondered if I was taking the advice of a madwoman was when she was describing her evening routine, which starts with arriving home and kneeling, as outlined above, unpacking and putting away every item in her handbag, and then thanking and respectfully storing her clothes so their spirits can be refreshed. But then this: “If you can’t empty your bag sometimes, that’s all right…Just between you and me, while writing this book, there have been times when I came home and fell asleep on the floor without even changing my clothes.” Wait, what?
But, for all that, she’s a good teacher. Her book is not meant to tell you what you should keep or throw away but to be “a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order.” I got rid of seven trash bags and two boxes of stuff, and have continued to hone in on joyless possessions that I missed or let slide the first time. Kondo says that now that I’ve put my house in order I’ll probably find love and my dream job and lose 10 pounds, but while I’m waiting for that to happen my apartment looks great.