An Exchange I Found Especially Humorous: Excerpts from Middling

I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here. What follows is an excerpt from the spring 2019 issue, a compare-and-contrast of two visionary books.

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I've recently read two books that are authors reflecting on and advocating for their particular vision of their particular vocation. One you've likely heard of: Marie Kondo has made a worldwide business of helping people get rid of stuff, taking her most recently to Netflix. The book that made her a phenom is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. In it she unpacks her KonMari method, which involves (among other things) holding everything you own in your hands and asking yourself whether it sparks joy. If it doesn't, thank it for its service and send it on its way; if it does, find its proper place in your home. I borrowed this book from a coworker. (I loaned her in exchange the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tom Harford, a book I very much enjoy, and an exchange I found especially humorous.) I found myself largely skeptical about Kondo's book for a couple of key reasons:

This "Japanese art" is Japanese only insofar as Kondo herself is Japanese. She found a market for her services in Japan precisely because so many people were so bad at dealing with clutter; even her family found her tidying annoying. In fairness to Kondo, she comes off as very much herself in this book--she would have written this book very differently if she weren't Japanese--and she makes no contention that what she's doing is some ancient cultural secret she's bringing to the world. So I blame the publisher for this point: Someone on that team decided the book would sell better if it were classed as a "Japanese art" rather than simply an "art." This prompted a mild ethical dilemma for me, actually, since publishing is my gig: Acquiring authors and marketing their books can, it turns out, come uncomfortably close to cultural appropriation. (That's a long bullet point. I apologize. It makes my next bullet point just a wee bit hypocritical.)

For a person whose whole brand is decluttering, Marie Kondo doesn't write especially sparingly. I found myself wondering fairly often when she would get back to the point.

Unlike many of my reading and writing friends, I wasn't particularly put off by Kondo's controversial suggestion that you limit your book collection to around thirty titles. (I was more offended that she suggested you keep those books in your shoe closet.) She makes an interesting point about the purpose of the things we have, and she's certainly correct that we read most of our books once if we read them at all, so to keep them around has more to do with our reluctance to let go of things than our desire to be stretched by them. Nevertheless, I haven't gotten rid of any books since reading Kondo's (except hers, I suppose, since I returned it to my friend when I finished it).

The other vision of vocation I read recently might not qualify in some people's minds as a book. Grant Snider is a comic artist, creating strips under the moniker of Incidental Comics. His strips explore the nature of art, the industry of publishing, and, in this book, The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity. This book is a curated collection of his previously published work, organized in a way that maps and mines the creative process. He's insightful and soulful, and his art hits far more than it misses. You can read this book quickly, but you can reread this book often. I'm not sure it would make the cut if I limited myself to thirty books, but I haven't put it away since I finished reading it.

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Speaking of reading, thanks for reading this post! If you'd like to get Middling in your in-box, give me a shout and I'll set you up.

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