Sunday, January 24, 2021

Book Review: Clutter by Jen Howard

 **This book review is from a copy I purchased in print**

Book cover of Clutter by Jen Howard

Clutter, An Untidy History

Jen Howard
Bookshop Link 

Our relationship to things is the topic of last year's short book by Jen Howard: Clutter, an Untidy History. 

Rather than another chiding book telling us what we should own, why we should all strive for minimalism, and the fourteen new ways to be free of things, Howard instead tackles the subject of what got us here, what has influenced historical move towards the acquisition of things -- simultaneously bringing us along for her own experience of cleaning out her mother's home after her death.  

The stark opening, dropping us into the challenges she faced, was familiar. I knew this world of huge overaccumulation which left a house dangerously full. While it never got quite as dangerous as Howard describes, this was very similar to the home of one of my grandmothers. This meant following her death, it took multiple dumpsters and endless donation trips to empty out a large two-story farmhouse with a large basement. One story I remember my mother telling me -- as I was too far away to help -- was of taking multiple carloads of sheets and other bedding, most of it brand new, to a local charity group (with their grateful advance permission).

Howard's history focuses on the United States and the influence primarily from the Industrial Revolution as it played out in Great Britain. She discusses hoarding briefly, but mostly focuses on the consumerism that has played out since the Victorian era, tracing it forward to mail order catalogs and Amazon Prime. She shows the integration of wanting stuff and our methods of shopping and how it aligns with various other trends simultaneously happening -- women as homemaker, the Container Store as our response to really Can We Just Sort It All, excess minimalism as a trend. 

She also examines throughout the book the professionals who are engaged in the world of sorting and reducing things. This includes an engaging portrait of a junk hauler who worked with her to take things away in his truck from her mother's house, a quiet woman sorting through paperwork for her -- to weed out the junk mail from the the treasured documents -- as well as a glimpse into those exhorting us to get rid of things or at least fully organize them, not least of which is Marie Kondo and the consultants who have taken up her program and other professional organizers.

I knew Howard's work and have followed her on Twitter from her time as a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She was one of the better writers and I could count on her to accurately represent people she wrote about, rather than relying upon outdated stereotypes of what X category of employee looked like. So I expected going into this that it would be interesting and well-written and I was pleased to have my expectations exceeded. 

This isn't a How-To Book and you will not find an underlying chiding or glorification of one lifestyle over another. Instead this is Howard's call to action mostly for herself. Her readers are encouraged to identify outlying forces pulling on them -- including the simultaneous drive to acquire things delivered in two days to our doors and the trendy minimalism that has sparked any number of YouTube channels.* ** Howard instead recommends better awareness of our acquisitions, whether they be physical or digital, their impact on our lives and our world, and how they might affect others if and when left behind. 

This book, read among a few others about cleaning and getting rid of things last year, felt more like hearing from a friend who was struggling at a similar place that I was. You have things, it's easy to acquire more, you don't want to just re-sort things endlessly but you also aren't trying to get down to two forks and no spare bed linens. 

Two final thoughts

1) This book reminded of this light soprano art song that my high school teacher gave me because I wasn't one of the "serious and accomplished" sopranos.  It's short, make sure you listen to the end to learn the epitaph! 

2) Now that I've read through the book twice, I'm ready for it to move on out of my home -- if you'd like it please let me know and I'll pop it in the mail to you. 

*I tried watching one of those channels briefly to see if I could get some interesting ideas. In the second video, a very thin trendy white woman expounded at length about how "she doesn't buy XYZ"--- by instead getting other people to buy them for her. This was her answer for over half the categories of things she claimed to not spend money on. This was not thrift or minimalism -- it was "Oh, well and then I got my Mom to buy me X." The willful shifting of the financial burden to others in her community was so entitled and obnoxious, I had to give up.  

** Why do minimalists all seem to have the same decorating trends? It's all very modern, all white and metal, clean lines.  Is there something wrong with not wanting an overwhelming amount of stuff and also having a brown bedspread that hides the cat hair bit better? 

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