Book Review: Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howard

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Like so many books on the topic, Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howardย (affiliate link) is part memoir, part social commentary, part research.


Don’t dismiss this book simply because it begins with a familiar story; the author’s mother dies with an embarrassing abundance of possessions that her children have to deal with. The story starts with the necessity to sort, donate, rehome, and ultimately dispose of a lifetime of “extreme clutter.” Howard delves into her mother’s diagnosis and origin story of her hoarding disorder. But then she weaves a story of anthropology and history from the last century into the next.

This short book, only 176 pages in a 5×7.5″ jacket size, reads like a trip down memory lane for some of us. She delves into Victorian culture and the rise of the middle class. The “rag and bone” traveling men and, later, shops that supported a layer of the economy and the values of thrift that were necessary before the age of mass production. On page 69 we revisit the rise of the now-defunct Montgomery Ward catalog and store, followed by the iconic Sears catalog, drawing a direct line to today’s big box stores and online shopping model.

Howard’s reflection on how we got here, and specifically how she found herself in the predicament of clearing out her mother’s untidy house, feels rather without judgment. I suspect that readers can decide to be a little more thrifty, a little slower to buy and bring home more consumer goods, but this book doesn’t feel like a political statement or treatise on green living. It’s more like a meeting with a therapist who gently probes, “And then what?”

Her familial responsibility gets her interested enough in the topic to travel to Philadelphia (my hometown) for a conference on hoarding disorder that took place in recent years. She learns more about the disease, which was only recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V in 2013. According to the definition, people with hoarding disorder have a conscious, ongoing urge to accumulate possessions, coupled with anxiety or mental anguish whenever those possessions get thrown away. This goes well beyond standard household clutter. The disease is thought to affect approximately 2% of the population. And thankfully, most households need not be concerned that avoiding the laundry or having shoes out of place will lead to the slippery slope of hoarding disorder. The two are related in the same way that a common cold and cancer are related; they are both medical events, but with different origins, treatments, and outcomes.

For a practitioner in the organizing and productivity fields like myself, I was glad to see the topic of clutter in general and clearing out a parent’s home treated with respect and research. She cites many of the same studies and trends I have shared before. Too many to mention; if you are new to this blog, support the author by purchasing the ebook to reduce your own clutter footprint. She hit on my own personal philosophy, after decades of keeping a home for my own family and helping others become more organized, that is often attributed to William Morris, a 19th-century designer: own fewer things, well made.

Taking the subject seriously, she underscores the reality that much of life’s caretaking falls more to women than to men, and that those who need help need not go it alone. Both of the professional organizations to which I belong (and often teach for) are mentioned. The National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals is mentioned on page 128. The Photo Managers, formerly known as APPO, is mentioned on page 164, almost an afterthought, helping people deal with their photos. Digital data hoarding is the next frontier, already being studied formally.

The book concludes with the house being cleared, all the possessions gone (although not all to her satisfaction), and the author back to her own home where she states the obvious…

“I have promised my children I won’t leave them the material mess that fell to me. I have to try. We all do.”

If this topic interests you, but you prefer a happy fictional story, check out the novel, The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan. Serendipity had me reading this sweet book at the same time I was reading Clutter. It’s a fairy tale about a rich novelist with a penchant for finding and cataloging lost things and what happens when he leaves his house and his “treasures” to the young woman who was his assistant in his later years. Throw in a ghost, a hunky gardener, and a lost St. Theresa charm, and you have your basic Hallmark Channel-style story that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy…but won’t get your closets any more organized. ๐Ÿ™‚

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