People have been gradually shifting away from stuff and moving toward buying services, like nice meals, vacations and the like. This comes as we, hopefully, remain out of peak COVID pandemic. It also comes as inflation strains wallets and makes people a little more careful about what they’re spending on.
But what about all that stuff that we might’ve accumulated during COVID? Maybe it’s your New Year’s Resolution to do some clean-up, and all the zeitgeist around minimalism in recent years might convince us it’s time to tidy up.
But maybe there’s an argument for keeping all the knick-knacks lying around. “Nobody else will ever enjoy your clutter quite the way you do,” says journalist Rob Walker, in his recent New York Times op-ed, “Clutter is Good for You.”
Marketplace’s David Brancaccio spoke with Walker, who’s also co-author of the new book, “Lost Objects: 50 Stories About the Things We Miss and Why They Matter,” about the positive role clutter can have on our lives.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: Rob, messy house, messy mind. Good people wash their hands. Good people declutter. You think clutter is good for you, in what way?
Rob Walker: Well, so this piece came about because of a couple of things. But the most relevant one was my mother, before she died last year, started sending me her clutter, basically. She was decluttering because she knew that her time was limited. And she wanted to get the house clean and was worried about these … she had this collection of sort of bird figurines. And, you know, it made me think about the fact that I don’t really want those, but you really enjoy them, so why not just continue to enjoy them for as long as you possibly can? And that made me think about, you know, we have tended in the last 10 years to really demonize clutter quite a bit. And I just wanted to sort of put in a good word for maybe clutter that you really enjoy is something that you should hang on to, rather than instinctively villainize and purge from your life in a heartless way.
Brancaccio: Well, help me understand this about your mom. I mean, we’re wrestling with this too, it’s very clear that the older generation’s stuff, we’ve inherited a bunch of it, the next generation’s not interested. And my kids really don’t want my stuff, either. But yet, you ended up with some of your mom’s stuff. And you’re thinking it’s OK to hold on to it?
Walker: [Laughs] Well, I ended up with one thing. There was this sort of turning point object was this, she sent me this ceramic leprechaun figurine that I’ve, I don’t remember it. She was like, ‘I thought you would want this’ and I don’t remember it, we’re not, we have no Irish connection. And it was the thing that made me say, ‘Look, you gotta not send me any more of these things, you got to just keep them.’ But I am keeping that one, because now it has, through a twist of fate, it has become a thing that makes me think of her. The point about this is that she really enjoyed this stuff, and one of the things that I enjoyed about her was her sort of confidence and clarity about her own taste and what she was interested in, whether I was interested or anyone else was interested in it or not. So that’s why I felt like that’s a feeling that should be honored. And I totally understand … and believe me, I’ve heard from any number of people who [laughs] have too much stuff, or their parents have too much stuff and they’re worried about what’s going to happen to it all. And the telling thing is that often these anecdotes start to involve storage units. Now, when you’re talking about storage units, you’re not talking about people, you know, enjoying something on a daily basis, that you can purge. I’m not an advocate of just keeping everything forever. I’m an advocate of honoring the seemingly sort of, you know, hard to defend affection that we have for objects. And it’s because those objects are connected to other things, they’re connected to some time in our life, they’re connected to a trip we took, they’re connected to a person we met, they’re connected to a feeling we had. And that is not something to take lightly, that is more meaningful, in terms of our relationship to materialism than, you know, buying the hottest new iPhone and I think we should honor that.
Brancaccio: That’s the thing, right? Because a subtle reading of the cultural trend toward decluttering is that you’re not supposed to throw everything out, you should save the stuff that’s meaningful. But you know, the stuff that’s giving off toxic energy associated with, you know, a relationship that ended in 1956, that you probably really do want to get rid of.
Walker: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think that just sort of culturally, we’ve swung a little bit in the last 10 years to a more minimalist aesthetic that I think demonizes anything that isn’t easily defensible, or that isn’t even trendy or something like that. And I was pleased to discover in the process of looking into this, that there is a sort of counter movement, you know, inevitably it’s #cluttercore. Sorry, I didn’t make that up. That’s something that exists out there. But it’s people who … younger people who are making videos of like, here’s my extensive collection of dolls or toys or whatever. Some of it’s a little over the top. But it’s a reaction to the idea of the minimal aesthetic, that everything looks like kind of a hotel room, isn’t very expressive, and it’s not necessarily needing to be expressive to other people. It’s needing to just sort of be comfortable with your own expression of yourself and be surrounded by things that mean something to you. I realized that this could possibly tip into this hoarder culture, I’m not advocating that but I think that there’s a middle ground that has been given short shrift in recent years and I wanted to speak up for it.
Brancaccio: Yeah, like I have a chrome nameplate from, I think a 1966 Chevy El Camino over my computer monitor here. And I don’t know what the point is, I’ve never owned an El Camino. Maybe I would like to have owned one, this is as far as I’ll ever get. But I’m not getting rid of it. It just … I get slightly happier looking at it, than not looking at it, right? And we shouldn’t have to apologize is what you’re saying.
Walker: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I love that because it’s inexplicable and it’s indefensible, but it’s right. It’s so wrong, it’s right. And you don’t need to be able to mount a defense in a court of law. You just have to sort of say like, ‘Look, this makes me happy. I like looking at this thing,’ and lean into that.
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