'I'm sitting on the floor in my mother's house, surrounded by stuff.' So begins Jennifer Howard's Clutter, an expansive assessment of our relationship to the things that share and shape our lives. Sparked by the painful two-year process of cleaning out her mother's house in the wake of a devastating physical and emotional collapse, Howard sets her own personal struggle with clutter against a meticulously researched history of just how the developed world came to drown in material goods.
A growing number of popular books promise to help us declutter our homes, making the case that emptying our closets and offloading knickknacks that don’t spark joy will improve our spirits and ultimately our lives. In her stern and wide-ranging new manifesto, Clutter: An Untidy History, journalist Jennifer Howard takes the anti-clutter message a step further. Howard argues that decluttering is not just a personally liberating ritual, but a moral imperative, a duty we owe both to our children and to the planet ... Howard’s description of its grave environmental harms constitutes a far more compelling argument against clutter than the risk of burdening the next generation with emptying our houses. For the record, my children agree.
Clutter opens as Howard surveys the wreckage of her mother’s overstuffed life: maggots roil; years’ worth of unwashed laundry moulders; long-poisoned mice lie mummified in forgotten corners. Yet the closets are full to bursting with Italian leather shoes and gala gowns, and the costume jewellery of a woman who kept up appearances ... Rather than search for the woman trapped inside the mess, Clutter tackles the story of the mess itself ... Clutter sets out valiantly to counter the tide of insidious neo-liberal wellness literature that frames (and commodifies) social problems as failings in self-care and lauds individual productivity as the greatest of virtues. But, with few meaningful solutions beyond buying less crap, the book often reads like a manifesto without any particular dictums, more an exercise in strident systemic issue-spotting.
In this illuminating sociological study, Howard, a former contributing editor and columnist for the Washington Post, begins with the discovery that her mother had been living for years in a hoarder’s den ... Howard then delves into the sordid history of clutter ... The author also explores how industrialization helped create the birth of consumer culture as well as the complex psychology of overconsumption in modern-day capitalism. Howard’s research is thorough, and the prose is clear, well written, and inviting rather than being judgmental, even if she’s exploring complex issues such as activism, entrepreneurship, and the potential impact of clutter on the future of the planet ... Like George Carlin’s infamous riff on 'A Place for My Stuff,' Howard’s exploration of one dark corner of consumer culture is quick-witted and insightful—and, appropriately for the subject, refreshingly concise ... A keen assessment of one of society’s secret shames and its little-understood consequences.