Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howard


Like Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, this is both a dive into an important topic and a deeply personal book. I have followed Jen Howard on Twitter for her professional interest in higher education and libraries for some years. She may have lived in my town for her first five years until her parents divorced; I have met her father, the eminent constitutional scholar, several times at neighborhood social occasions.

She wrote this book after she cleaned out her mother’s house which she describes in all its horrifying detail in the Prologue. This overwhelming task took two years as she fit in sorting, distributing items with value, and throwing trash away around her family time and her full-time job. The emotional toll was notable; she speaks of her anger that her mother left this momentous task.

Some interesting points I want to remember from this book include these:

Hoarding disorder was recognized in the DSM-5 in 2013 and it afflicts people of all socioeconomic levels, ethnicities, ages, and genders. Though the majority of us do not suffer from an extreme disorder, many do have a clutter problem. For me the most memorable and clarifying description of clutter build-up is “delayed decisions.”

The influx of clutter into the lives of the Victorians came when a middle class with money to spend on items beyond necessities came into being.

In this country the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs made a wide range of consumer goods available not only to rural folks, but also to Black people who could not go to some stores. Having grown up in the country, I have strong memories of those catalogs. As an indication of their importance as a public record, I offer this:  my father, in his work as a patent examiner used them to determine whether a patent application for a bra represented an original work.

Then came the multiplicity of catalogs that flow into our homes unless we undertake a superhuman effort to stop them. The big box stores that sell in multiples first appeared in the late 60s and early 70s. Big Lots lacked appeal but Costco has everything you want and in large quantities. And there’s Amazon Prime. Yes, it’s quite easy to acquire goods and the temptations are endless.

The author writes about the Marie Kondo sensation and read her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up while in the midst of cleaning out her mother’s house. If she had read the book in another point in her life, she says she might have been irritated at the relentless upbeat style. “In the depths of my cleaning-out despair, though, tidying up sounded lovely….”

Marie Kondo spoke about reducing book clutter on one of her televised programs and the outcry was deafening and included, as Howard notes, caps-inflected tweets. I think of the libraries of the world as my own collection of books, and knowing all those books are available to me gives me great comfort and enables me to move books off my shelves.

Even before I read the section about electronic clutter, one day when I picked up the book to read a bit, I was moved to action instead:  I tackled the more than 500 emails in my inbox. Getting the number down below 400 was enough to reassure myself that I can make those “delayed decisions.”

Jennifer Howard, Clutter:  An Untidy History, Belt Publishing, 2020, 176 pages. Available from Amazon and from Belt Publishing.

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