An editor’s review: The little book of tidying, Beth Penn

In this age of consumerism and materialism, on a planet drowning in stuff and fast fashion, it’s understandable that “tidying” books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying have become incredibly popular. Ordinarily, a book on tidying isn’t a book I’d buy, but somebody obviously felt that I’d benefit from a little decluttering as I got The Little Book of Tidying by Beth Penn for Christmas. I won’t take it personally though.

This book certainly is little, so small that it fit in my Christmas stocking. So small that I read it in less than an hour—around 40 minutes if we’re counting—but I am a fast reader what with it being my job and all. In some senses, a book on decluttering should be small, and I don’t just mean in terms of physical size. What I mean is that it shouldn’t take long to read. It shouldn’t clutter a person’s time when it’s proposing that we do the opposite. Indeed, keeping it short and sweet is something that I urge all of my authors to do in this fast-paced world where time is short and TBR piles are long.

If only the actual tidying took up as little time as the book did. That said, the point of this book is that tidying isn’t just a job to be done but a lifestyle, and certainly not something that happens overnight. To this end, Penn breaks the mammoth job of tidying into tiny chunks, minimising the feeling of overwhelm that appears when people even considerdecluttering.

In that sense, she motivates the reader to actually implement their book learning into the real world, which is the challenge of all nonfiction authors. Encouraging the reader to not just put the book back on the shelf and forget about it, but to act on it. This little book motivated me to clear out over 100 CDs, 50 DVDs, and 30 books.

However, where the book falls short is in practical details on the “getting rid” part—especially getting rid in a sustainable way. You see, for me, it’s not so much the decluttering that’s off-putting. It’s finding a new home for those items in a responsible way. Penn touches briefly on this, stating that for every hour of tidying, you can expect 10-15 minutes of getting-rid time, be it the charity shop, recycling, or something else. In my experience, the getting-rid part takes much longer and involves boxes of items “waiting around” to find their new homes for months, actually increasing the appearance of clutter and mess.

The problem is that not everything can be recycled. Not everything can be sold on quickly. And according to research, many of the clothes we give to charity shops are sent overseas, adding to our carbon footprint. In other words, it’s not just a simple case of throwing things out but considering where they’re being passed on to. Are you sustainably passing items on to a new life or passing the problem on to somebody else? These considerations take time, much longer than 15 minutes. Perhaps Penn can write another little book on the getting-rid part next.

Another area that I wish Penn had expanded on is decluttering our time. In today’s society, it often feels like we have too little time and too much to do. While Penn dedicates a chapter to this topic, freeing up time is complex and perhaps more difficult than clearing out physical possessions. It’s not something that can be covered in a few pages, and so it almost feels like an afterthought in this already little book. Perhaps two little books would have been better—one on possessions, one on time.

Overall, this little book skims the surface and is a good stepping stone if you’d like to dip your toes in the water. It has strong arguments for why you should declutter, and motivates readers to get started with tidying. However, it’s light on the details and practicalities of doing so—and how to declutter your time to find the time for decluttering.

On a final note, I found it a little ironic that a book on getting rid of physical possessions was a physical book, therefore adding to the clutter we experience and have to get rid of. Perhaps all books on tidying and decluttering should only be available in e-book format?