Review: Spark Joy

Spark JoyMarie Kondo needs little introduction right now: with two Netflix series (one of them Emmy-nominated) and a bestselling book, titled in English The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, translated into at least 11 languages, the Japanese tidying consultant has become a global phenomenon. Spark Joy is the second of her books to be translated into English; it reportedly covers little new ground, but rather expands on the principles outlined in Life-Changing Magic.

The book’s title, a phrase which has become synonymous with Kondo’s approach to tidying up, refers to the question one must ask of any object in one’s home: does this spark joy? If yes, it can stay; if no, it goes. (There are some fudges to account for mundane but useful objects like screwdrivers: these, Kondo says, can be said to spark joy in their ability to carry out their function effectively, and so can be kept.) Underlying this simple principle is an animistic philosophy which can come across as twee or trite to Western readers: remarks like “Balling your socks and stockings, or tying them into knots, is cruel”, and suggestions that high-value currency notes feel pride, are somewhat eyebrow-raising.

The problem, I think, is to some extent one of positioning: Spark Joy is sold in the West as a self-help book, a practical manual on home organisation, and it’s somewhat jarring in that context to come across these quasi-religious/spiritual statements. (Kondo has said in the past that her approach is based on Shinto principles.) I also think Cathy Hirano’s straightforward, plain-English translation does these ideas no favours: I’ve written before about how easy it is for religious principles to be rendered trite and absurd by authors who fail to capture the sense of the numinous and the profound that lie behind those principles. (It may be that this problem is present in Kondo’s original text, but as a non-Japanese speaker I don’t have access to that; and in any case I suspect Kondo’s principles make more sense in her cultural context.)

In any case there are some useful titbits to be gleaned from Spark Joy: I’ve moved house recently, and while I didn’t follow Kondo’s decluttering advice to the letter, I did find myself thinking of her “spark joy” principle when choosing what to keep and what to recycle or give away. Her folding tips, too, have been useful in storing stuff away in new spaces. And, at root, her philosophy that the sacred resides in every material thing is one I fundamentally share. But Spark Joy ultimately did not spark joy in me.

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