Thornshar (thornshar) wrote,

"It's All Too Much" by Peter Walsh

You know, this has to be the most plebeian, unintellectual sounding book I've ever reviewed. The subtitle is "An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff". In other words, it's a self-improvement book. It's based on a TV personality, for goodness sake. Yet, of all the books I read in 2007, it is with some dismay that I have to admit it was this one which caused the most immediate impact.

It really should have been the works of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Douglas Hofstadter, or Stephen Pinker, or Richard Dawkins. Perhaps, in the long run, it will be. But at this point, I have to admit that when you look at their impact on my life on a day-to-day basis, Walsh's book has bested them.

Part of the reason is that just buying this book, and laying it on the table where Cassandra can see it, which got us talking about the topic. But mostly, it is because Walsh is apparently an expert at dealing with the techniques of rationalization.

First, though, he points out some relevant trends in recent decades. One is the growth, far faster than the overall economy, of the storage industry. Another is the growth in the size of the average American house, without any commensurate growth in the size of the average American family. His (perhaps somewhat controversial) assertion is that this is not because we are wanting more space than before, but rather because we want the same amount of space for ourselves that we had before, but we have so much more stuff. In other words, the 2000 square foot house is often in reality a 1000 square foot house, the same as 50 years ago, with 1000 square foot of extra storage that add nothing to our life.

Here, there is probably an intellectual thread worthy of a major tome all in itself, that excess stuff in our (America's) life is a sign of a deeper problem, an obsession with consumerism and the act of acquisition as a method of empowerment divorced emotionally from any real need or use for the item in question. What drives us to get all this? Why can't we see the problem, or if we do, why don't we stop? Is our economy, or even our larger social system, dependent on this obsessive-compulsive gorging on new material goods? One good essay on the topic is Paul Graham's, which you can find here.

Walsh either doesn't care, or doesn't want his book to become as overstuffed as the houses he is talking about. He proceeds straight on to solutions. Like, write down with the other members of your family what each room in the house is supposed to be for. Once you have that, then throw out or move out everything in the room that isn't supporting that goal. This is a different order than we usually use for deciding what to keep, or where things go. As Walsh points out, most of the things in our house are either wherever we first put them when (exhausted and eager to be done) we moved into our house, or else wherever we first put them when we brought them home from the store. Rarely is this the best place to keep your house organized.

Or, if that is a priceless heirloom which you could not part with, why is it stuffed in a box in the closet? Either bring it out and give it a place in your home commensurate with its supposed importance, or else admit that if all you can give it is a place in a box in your closet, then it really isn't that important.

Any one of these tricks to short-circuit the emotional appeals of stuff is not enough to declutter (or, as one of my friends puts it, decrapulate) your house. However, he has one on just about every page of the book, and if you can't find something in the 200 pages of this book to help you with your problem, you aren't really trying.

So, after letting this book and the discussions it provoked percolate for a couple months, we then arrived at the Christmas/New Year's break. First, we decided that the wall which had been adorned with ball-point-pen murals (thank-you, Juliet) needed to be painted. If we're painting the wall, we might as well re-paint the concrete floor, which has needed a touch-up for a couple years.

Once we're painting the floor, all the furniture needs to move temporarily into another room or rooms. And once that's happened, we have opened up the entire question of what should be in each room, how it should be arranged, and what really doesn't need to be in our house at all. What is each room for? Before we knew it, we had gotten into what Walsh calls the Kick Start, a process of intensive cleaning/organizing/decrapulating that doesn't fix all your problems, but does get you enough results to feel better about tackling the work which the full solution will require.

Now, as break draws to a close, we are in a house with 2-3 times as much open space in every room. Among other things, that means Juliet has enough space to play in, run around in, etc. It also means the place is a lot easier to keep clean.

So, is this a great book? I don't know. Part of me thinks that the deeper issue related to stuff and our obsession with it merited more attention. But maybe the best place to consider this is from a decluttered living room.

And yes, I even let Cassandra convince me to get rid of some of my books (not the good ones); we now have a bit of room on the bookshelves again, instead of seeing them piled up on every bit of table space. Walsh's book will be one of the keepers (in case I need to read it again in five years).
Tags: book review, it's all too much, peter walsh

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