Book review: The Joy of Less

I have a new theory regarding discarding, trying to fuse the exhilarating ‘just toss it, it’ [almost] all superfluous’ approaches of Nagisa Tatsumi and all internet minimalists (1, 2, 3), including the book I’m reviewing today, and the more mindful approach of Marie Kondo. It goes along the lines of discerning between obvious irrelevance and one you must fight some demons to discover.

It’s pretty much about the fact that most dwellings have a number of completely irrelevant possessions that serve no real purpose, give no joy and are far removed from our identities. One conscious look will reveal that and – mostly with a thrill – you’ll get rid of it. Typical examples include: never unpacked gifts, knickknacks from other people’s travels, stuff you inherited from the previous renters, etc. But beyond this layer comes the next one: stuff that has links to your self esteem, to your idealized self, to a future vision from years ago… this is the insidious stuff that requires serious KonMari and soul searching. Typical examples include: books you have been wanting to read for a long time, hobby you had years ago, clothing that is for other size than you are now, unused stationery or any other ‘too good for everyday life’ possessions, etc.

So Francine Jay‘s The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide (2010) is one of those books that will get you walking around your home with a garbage bag in your hands and happily discarding… which might be just what you were looking for. As far as I can discern, hers is one of the first minimalist guides out there, hence also anthropologically interesting to see what the talking point looked like before KonMari, TED talks, and so much more writing about why reducing one’s possessions is a good idea. It’s a short e-book to get you in the discarding mode, arguing not only the psychological well being point of letting go and opening up space, but also the climate breakdown due to over-consumption.

A couple of my favorite ideas include:

The notion of curation

I find this notion especially powerful when dealing with archivist tendencies, the idea that pieces of information have to be kept because they are parts of the history and hence worthy of being organized and kept forever. F*ck that shit! If you have never felt like that, lucky you, if you are more like me, feel free to edit the past. For me this has been particularly helpful with editing my digital photography archives. Curate, don’t archive.

The same logic, of course, applies – in a much more visible way – to general organization and decoration of spaces. Already in 1940s Ludwig was saying that less is more.


Small space is a good space

One of the common sociological explanations of the downsizing crisis and the success of all the gurus recommending owning less, especially in the USA, is the turn away from the suburbs (both because of more turbulent economies and cultural preferences), so you get baby boomers cleaning out the n bedroom houses + garage + attic + basement before they downsize for retirement while millenials don’t want all that stuff and wouldn’t have space for it even if they wanted to have it. Yes, this has spawned the horrible storage locker economy… and often pathological tiny house movement. But the implication for accumulation is clear: the more storage space you have, the more irrelevant stuff you can keep without ever being bothered by it. Reasonably small dwellings just naturally keep that in check.


F*ck objects as self-representation

Yes, this is classic Palahniuk in Fight Club: ‘You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.’ I’m not sure he forms part of Jay’s conscious influences, but the spirit is the same.

Obviously, all our consciously chosen possessions tell things about us. I don’t think we are able to avoid it. Not for nothing all monk orders and ascetics do their best to eschew this, the pull of fusing ourselves with our possessions is powerful. But you can at least try to be in touch with that pull, try to negotiate this. And for some these are brand clothes and for others – those books, books, books… As for Academic projections of self, I kept laughing as Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was suddenly everywhere because I don’t think even 1/4 of people who bought that tome ever read it.


1 in, 1 out

This is a classic of professional organizing, but people keep doing it, from computers and TV sets to underwear. Hence we have to be very thankful to the big electronics world (fridges!) where people will take away your old one as they bring in the new one, and try to apply the same logic to everything else. It is hard, yes, and your inner hamster wants to keep it ‘just in case’, but train that hamster and get rid of the old duplicates!


Some free space is a must

Again, obvious but apparently wort repeating. It’s hard to take things out and put back in crammed spaces. And – and here comes some KonMari animism – your things look all crowded and uncomfortable. They are suffocating! Marie suggests 90% full, and, while Francine doesn’t name a number, the idea is the same: leave some wiggle room, and accept that roomy arrangement as the one to maintain. That implies discarding before an overflow!


Have you have read any decluttering/minimalism books that have pushed you towards action? Any that you have been immune to? Of all the discarding tips and hacks floating the internets, what are your favorite ones? Hanger turning? The minimalism game? The one minute rule? I’m all ears…

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