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Clutter: An Untidy History

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"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 wit "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. With sharp prose and an eye for telling detail, she connects the dots between the Industrial Revolution, the Sears & Roebuck catalog, and the Container Store, and shines unsparing light on clutter's darker connections to environmental devastation and hoarding disorder. In a confounding age when Amazon can deliver anything at the click of a mouse and decluttering guru Marie Kondo can become a reality TV star, Howard's bracing analysis has never been more timely.


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"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 wit "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. With sharp prose and an eye for telling detail, she connects the dots between the Industrial Revolution, the Sears & Roebuck catalog, and the Container Store, and shines unsparing light on clutter's darker connections to environmental devastation and hoarding disorder. In a confounding age when Amazon can deliver anything at the click of a mouse and decluttering guru Marie Kondo can become a reality TV star, Howard's bracing analysis has never been more timely.

30 review for Clutter: An Untidy History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Judith

    I became increasingly agitated as I made my way through this book and I realized it was too close to home. The writer got the job many of us have had or will have: that is cleaning up the detritus of a lifetime of our parent (s). Her mother was so like my mother: she had 3 husbands; divorced 2 and outlived the third and accumulated a mountain of trash. Fortunately for me, my mother never had any garbage (unsanitary food remains or animal feces or bugs)left in her house. But similar to the author I became increasingly agitated as I made my way through this book and I realized it was too close to home. The writer got the job many of us have had or will have: that is cleaning up the detritus of a lifetime of our parent (s). Her mother was so like my mother: she had 3 husbands; divorced 2 and outlived the third and accumulated a mountain of trash. Fortunately for me, my mother never had any garbage (unsanitary food remains or animal feces or bugs)left in her house. But similar to the author's mother, had two Immelda Marcos' closets full of shoes, and ditto the clothes, purses, suitcases and dishes, furniture and stuff. At one point the author describes a desk which contained: "Hundreds of pens and pencils, stored in six different containers on the desk and stuffed in drawers. Dozens of sharpies. Old snapshots of my kids. Post-it notes, every size and description. Tiny screwdrivers. An ancient comb. More tiny screwdrivers. Old pills. Shopper loyalty cards from various stores. Weird random crap I could not identify. A big marble. A spool of blue thread. Bobby pins, safety pins. More weird random crap. Key rings, business cards from people she had not done business with in years. . . . . . " I had to remind myself that she was talking about her mother, not mine. The author quoted from a number of books that I had previously read including the mother of all hoarding stories "Homer and Langley" as well as my favorite clean-up books "Swedish Death Cleaning" and "The life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up". I learned that the test of the "spark joy" did not originate with Marie Kondo but was first stated in an 1880 speech delivered by an architect to a school of art and design. And he probably found the quote somewhere else. Even a famous line from the movie "Fight Club", "The things you own end up owning you.", is distilled from a 19th century domestic advice manual. And the author goes on to explain why trash is such a world wide problem. Multiply her mother and my mother and then set it up on a global scale. It's no longer a matter of recycling. China won't take our plastics any more and that's just a small window into the world of waste. ARGH!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Liese Schwarz

    Delightful! It's particularly charming that a book about clutter is presented in such a slender volume. It would have been dreadfully ironic if this had been a tome. Instead, in "Clutter" we get a concise, lively history of the drive to accumulate, with not a wasted word. In highly readable and entertaining prose, the author traces the culture of *stuff* from the Victorian era to our modern caricature of plenty, framing the history with a personal narrative (the challenge of clearing out her own Delightful! It's particularly charming that a book about clutter is presented in such a slender volume. It would have been dreadfully ironic if this had been a tome. Instead, in "Clutter" we get a concise, lively history of the drive to accumulate, with not a wasted word. In highly readable and entertaining prose, the author traces the culture of *stuff* from the Victorian era to our modern caricature of plenty, framing the history with a personal narrative (the challenge of clearing out her own mother's jampacked house). It's fascinating and revealing, scholarly and sensitive. Even if clutter does not happen to be your bugaboo, this is a very compelling (and enlightening) read! I don't know anyone who would not enjoy this book. This goes on my "keeper" shelf.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    I don't feel like this book offered anything new that hasn't been said in other recent -- and less-recent -- books about fast fashion, consumer culture, recycling, and waste. That so many quotes and insights are from those books makes me wonder why this needed to be an entire book at all. The audiobook was pretty poorly produced, sounding as if numerous women performed it, instead of a single one. The cuts, the jumps, the volume shifts were all really jarring and amateur.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alyson Podesta

    this book treated the human tendency to hang onto possessions with a gentleness I've found in only a few other books. it's highly researched, and it deftly moves from the sociological to the personal reasons why we ascribe emotions to our things without losing sensitivity toward this topic.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Mitchell

    I was listening to this book while packing up my apartment I have been in for 8 years. It was the perfect book to listen to as it made me want to pitch everything.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Marta Pelrine-Bacon

    I really feel this is a book we all need to read. It's informative and engaging, and I appreciated the questions the author poses. Side note: this is not a Marie Kondo style book. Just so you know. But it is complementary to probably any organizing/decluttering books you've read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jadon Mann

    I'm... not quite sure why this book exists, to be honest. The story is a time-honored one, something that even Howard themselves acknowledges lives in a fairly substantial part of our modern zeitgeist, if shows like Hoarding: Buried Alive and The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up are anything to go off of. Moving an aging parent into a home is a very raw nerve to touch on the best of days, one that feels like it needed to be told, and I enjoyed those parts of the story the most. But the rest of th I'm... not quite sure why this book exists, to be honest. The story is a time-honored one, something that even Howard themselves acknowledges lives in a fairly substantial part of our modern zeitgeist, if shows like Hoarding: Buried Alive and The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up are anything to go off of. Moving an aging parent into a home is a very raw nerve to touch on the best of days, one that feels like it needed to be told, and I enjoyed those parts of the story the most. But the rest of this book feels like something you'd politely sit through during conversation at the dinner table with some far-flung relative on a homecoming tour, regaling you with their various teachings from a life well-lived. It reads like a quick-and-dirty Medium article by someone you've never heard of, something you skim because of the allure of a greater message (which you don't find). It makes some vapid points about Victorianism and how it relates to modern life, but that's about it, really. That's what this book is. It's vapid. I liked the message, and the topic was interesting, but otherwise? It's nothing more than a soapbox, or a one-sided conversation where only the speaker is interested in the topic at hand. If you're looking for something more informative, the book you seek is in another clutter-filled castle.

  8. 4 out of 5

    K.M. Alexander

    Centered on Jennifer Howard’s laborious task of cleaning up the remains of her mother’s house, Clutter is a very personal history book. Using this event as a catalyst, Howard traces a thoroughly fascinating chronicle following the rise of modern consumer culture from the gilded parlors of Victorian England through the industrial era to today. Compelling and well-researched, the scope is broad, but the book never loses its heart. Since finishing, I’ve found myself rethinking my own relationship w Centered on Jennifer Howard’s laborious task of cleaning up the remains of her mother’s house, Clutter is a very personal history book. Using this event as a catalyst, Howard traces a thoroughly fascinating chronicle following the rise of modern consumer culture from the gilded parlors of Victorian England through the industrial era to today. Compelling and well-researched, the scope is broad, but the book never loses its heart. Since finishing, I’ve found myself rethinking my own relationship with the things I own and how every purchase, ever discard, and ever reuse impacts the world around me. Absolutely worth a read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Vincent

    If you liked Kondo's ethos, you will appreciate this slightly more personal narrative about de-cluttering, which includes a nice bonus in the form of a stroll through the history of holding onto crap. Jen has found a way to explain the story of clutter in a non-judgmental way (perhaps too apologetically) so that we don't feel guilty about any part of it and instead see it in the context of how a capitalist consumeristic society naturally pushes everyone towards accumulating objects of all kind. Ev If you liked Kondo's ethos, you will appreciate this slightly more personal narrative about de-cluttering, which includes a nice bonus in the form of a stroll through the history of holding onto crap. Jen has found a way to explain the story of clutter in a non-judgmental way (perhaps too apologetically) so that we don't feel guilty about any part of it and instead see it in the context of how a capitalist consumeristic society naturally pushes everyone towards accumulating objects of all kind. Eventually we all must dispose of that crap and Jen helps us see the value of starting that process before WE DIE!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lizanne Payne

    "Clutter" finds a nice balance alternating between personal essay and journalistic exploration of our society's excess consumption and its effects. The personal essay part is a little more compelling, as Howard recounts the inevitable and sad process of closing out her mother's house and all its things. It's a discursive book, appropriate for a book about clutter, ranging from hoarding to recycling to the junk hauling industry. It is paradoxically reassuring to come away from it feeling like my "Clutter" finds a nice balance alternating between personal essay and journalistic exploration of our society's excess consumption and its effects. The personal essay part is a little more compelling, as Howard recounts the inevitable and sad process of closing out her mother's house and all its things. It's a discursive book, appropriate for a book about clutter, ranging from hoarding to recycling to the junk hauling industry. It is paradoxically reassuring to come away from it feeling like my minor clutter is not a character flaw!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bell

    It is a perfectly nice nonfiction. On every page, between every line, I got the impression that Jennifer Howard avoided writing the story that she should have written, the story that only she can write. The story of her mother, and of what she discovered in cleaning out her house.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Karen Kelliher

    I really wanted to enjoy and learn from this book, but it read more like a long, iffy magazine article. It also needs proper editing. I've never come across more errors in a published book. It feels entirely rushed to print.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tracett

    This is a good book to listen to while clearing out your own nest. Not a how-to, this is a general guide to the history of why and what we tend to cling on to. I'd recommend this book to those who need a gentle hand holding while divesting themselves of their own precious treasures.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Binxie

    With so many books on getting rid of clutter, minimalism, and zero waste, Howard is able to come at it from a different perspective. Her research about the history of human's need for things and the role consumerism plays in our lives, was worth the read.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lanie Tankard

    Here's my review from THE WOVEN TALE PRESS: https://www.thewoventalepress.net/202... Here's my review from THE WOVEN TALE PRESS: https://www.thewoventalepress.net/202...

  16. 5 out of 5

    Belinda A. Allen

    A worthy and quick read about the authors need to understand the where, when and how of clutter and it’s effects. P. 113. “We’ve normalized a state of excess that isn’t normal.”

  17. 4 out of 5

    Joy Douglas

    Gets a bit tedious in the telling/listing of things.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Marcia

    An interesting book that explores the history of how we came to be surrounded by so much stuff. It touches briefly on hoarding, but dives more into how "things" became so important to us.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Liz Castaneda

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kara

  21. 5 out of 5

    Christine

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kristine Purrington

  23. 4 out of 5

    Peggy

  24. 4 out of 5

    Joe

  25. 4 out of 5

    Dave

  26. 4 out of 5

    Babsidi

  27. 4 out of 5

    Meagen Senn

  28. 5 out of 5

    Stacey

  29. 5 out of 5

    Emily~

  30. 4 out of 5

    Susan C. Pepper

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