“Life only begins after you have put your house in order,” writes tidying expert Marie Kondo on the first page of her new book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. If that’s true, then the devoted readers of Kondo’s first book, which sold three million copies, are only toddlers. At this point, just over a year after learning about Kondo’s life-changing magic, has that army of Konverts remained steadfast? Or has their joy-spark been snuffed out by the temptations of high capitalism, a system designed specifically to incite perpetual longing for more things?
After all, humankind has had a long, complicated relationship to stuff. Even as recently as the ’70s, people just didn’t own that much. But with the rise of the megamall in the ’80s, shopping became a legitimate leisure activity for the middle class, and people started to accumulate lots of junk. By the ’90s, thanks to low overseas-manufacturing costs, the struggle to avoid getting crushed under your mountains of cheap crap was real. That’s when storing and organizing started to look like the key to happiness. (Enter the Container Store, Hold Everything, and the rise of the professional organizer.) The early ’00s ushered in the decluttering movement: You couldn’t just store your stuff; you had to whisk everything out of sight. Closets were all the rage. The rich hired closet designers and bought houses based on how many closets they had; the non-rich stuffed their gigantic CD towers into their closets with the rest of their unsightly possessions.
By the late ’00s, though, hoarding shows made owning too much stuff look less like an inconvenience and more like an outright pathology. But the rise of the Cloud in the 2010s was the final nail in the coffin of too much stuff. Suddenly books and CDs and photo albums alike became the purview of clutter-lovers. Clearly one’s best life can only be lived against a backdrop as pristine and empty as an art gallery. From Pinterest to Instagram to the pages of Real Simple and Dwell, the same message rings loud and clear: Owning too much stuff is tantamount to actively choosing unhappiness.
Thus was the shiny, empty stage set for our brand-new tidying messiah. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, published in October of 2014, spoke right to the heart of the modern human. Who doesn’t love the prim, already-quite-clean sound of “tidying up”? Who doesn’t crave life-changing magic in all its forms? But Kondo’s real message was far more revolutionary than that: Get rid of most of your stuff right now, she told us, and your whole life will improve more than you can possibly imagine.
Perhaps this is why Spark Joy, which comes out this week, feels like such a strange and dubious offering. Because even though Kondo goes into more detail here about her folding method and lays out the finer points of “storing joyfully” (sometimes storing items with similar smells and vibes helps, Kondo tells us, in typical freaky Kondo-speak), even though she discusses the proper ways of organizing everything from makeup to memory cards to “memories of past lovers,” the heart and soul of Kondo-izing is not her road map to categorizing and storing everything under the sun. Kondo’s central, underlying message — her haunting subtext and the primary reason for her massive popularity — is that most of the stuff we own is not only pointless and deeply unnecessary and horribly burdensome in every single way, but it holds us back from growing into fully empowered, happy, satisfied people. Our extra stuff is not a sign of our prosperity; it’s a sign of our impoverishment.
Of course Kondo never would’ve become the global superstar she is if she didn’t use much more positive, thrillingly poetic terms for letting go of excess. But the bottom-line message found in both of her books — and in the pages of Life-Changing Magic: A Journal: Spark Joy Every Day, and likely in the third book in her series, which reportedly has the titillating title, Experiencing the Pulsing Magic of Cleaning Up Every Day — is that most of our stuff is pointless and weighs us down. Thus, the unnerving irony of Spark Joy (and the journal, and maybe the third book and the fourth book and the many, many more books to come) is that these new Kondo products feel like exactly the sort of redundant, unnecessary items that Kondo herself would urge her clients to throw out.
Which is not to say that we don’t find, in the pages of this latest book, all of the charm that made Kondo a worldwide sensation in the first place. As millions of Kondo-lovers know all too well, the actual experience of reading Kondo’s work is almost indescribably invigorating. Something about her dainty language, something about her steadfast insistence that things have feelings (Your bunched-up stockings are insulted by their unjust treatment at your hands! Your coat appreciates a little thanks for keeping you warm everyday!), something about the clearly compulsive nature of her lifelong passion for total control over her environment, has a unique way of inciting a truly life-changing bout of cathartic junk-purging where many other methods may have failed.
Advanced-level Kondo — in close-up, in detail — means even more exquisite madness than ever before. Within the first few pages of her new book, the author has referred to tidying up as a “once-in-a-lifetime special event” and has hinted faintly at a “god of tidying up” who is “always on your side as long as you are committed to getting it done.” Later, Kondo suggests “treat(ing) your bras like royalty,” and recommends covering stuffed animals’ eyes so that they don’t flash you accusatory looks from that Goodwill-bound bin by the front door. In other words, calling Kondo’s infatuation with organizing a “love of tidying” is a little bit like praising a tsunami for its unmatched passion for redesigning entire coastlines.
But then, maybe it takes a slightly unhinged person to inspire humans around the globe to cast off the results of four straight decades of mindless consumption. After all, who else would dare to use a subtitle like, “The basic rule for papers: Discard everything”? (Do they not require tax documentation in Japan?) Who else would name a section of her (original) book, “Photos: Cherish who you are now”? That’s like changing Southwest Airlines’ slogan from “Wanna get away?” to “What are you running from?” Kondo has never seemed quite in step with the rest of humanity, and I’m happy to say that part of her magic hasn’t changed. (Regarding letters: “Rather than putting them directly into the recycle bin, it is more respectful to cover them in a paper bag first.”) It’s part of what makes her books so riveting.
That said, as Marie Kondo becomes an internationally known guru — and just this morning I received an invitation to hear her speak in Los Angeles, where she’ll share “wisdom and practical information” presumably about, you know, folding — it’s important to remember the shadow-message that lies just underneath Kondo’s shiny veneer of prim optimism: Not only do we live in a world that wants us to replace the 100 bags of worthless shit we just threw out with even more worthless shit, but it will get up in our faces and insist, every waking second of every day, that we purchase more worthless shit right this very minute. The poetic, minimalist subtext that turned Marie Kondo into something akin to a globally recognized religious figure, the Dalai Lama of soothing, hygienic empowerment, is that we don’t need more. More, in fact, is a sickness. Kondo’s message is, and always has been, that we should work with what we have instead.
By imbuing objects with feelings (in keeping with the Shinto tradition), Kondo unearthed the importance of the feelings that our objects evoke. Therefore, even as her new books and journals (and the stationery and the knickknacks and the audio lectures and the TED talks that may follow) flood the market, even as Kondo herself becomes a product and embodies the clutter she’s fought a lifelong battle against, it might be time for us — and that toddler army of Konverts — to ask ourselves: What purpose do these new books serve in our lives? Do we see purchasing tidying-themed material as a means of solidifying the original Book of Kondo? Are we punishing ourselves for not Kondo-izing more thoroughly over the past year? Might these new books not rebuke us, from their spots on our shelves, making us even more guilty for how untidy we’ve become, and inciting in us an insatiable hunger for even more solutions, more lectures, more stuff? Maybe now is the time to remember the tough questions Marie Kondo taught us to ask about our things. She was the one who told us: Your stuff shouldn’t make you long for more stuff. Your stuff should remind you that you have everything you need.