Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Review: Year of No Clutter: A Memoir, by Eve Schaub

I often write book reviews on websites like Amazon or Goodreads.com, but this is the first time I've felt the need to move the review to a more personal forum. The objective for those reviews is to offer feedback to internet strangers to help them decide if they want to read the book or not. It's more about the book, less about me personally. It's impossible for me to write a review of Year of No Clutter without saying more about myself than someone scanning reviews on Amazon would want to know. The book is a memoir by Eve Schaub, after she gave herself one year to clean out the room in her house that she is most ashamed of and keeps locked, in fear that someone will discover her dirty secret: the Hell Room.

Eve Schaub's Hell Room is a large bedroom in where Stuff ends up when there is no other answer to the question, "What am I going to do with this?" It is a purgatory for items she can't part with, for a myriad of reasons that are all touched on in the book. The shame and burden of the secret room grows in proportion to the inventory of the room itself until she is emotionally and physically at capacity for both. Much of the memoir is self-discovery, as she searches for logic in her inability to part with belongings. She understands that the Stuff no longer serves a purpose and has become a burden, but throughout the book she examines the underlying reasons for her attachment to things as she tries to come to terms with owning the label of "hoarder".

The reason that this review goes beyond the normal review post is because I have hoarders in my family and the problem is very real to me. I'm sure if you asked my mother or grandmother, they would describe themselves as "collectors", whereas my dad would likely respond with, "My stuff is none of your business", The rest of the world would call them hoarders. My dad has always been meticulously organized, so my first glimpse of the tip of his Stuff Iceburg was seeing his overstuffed file cabinets with decades of statements - electric bills, phone bills, printed emails... with my dad, most things had a place, but generally that place wasn't the trash can. My mother and her multiple storage units are another story altogether. Two parents, two very different methods, both undoubtedly hoarders.

I started reading Year of No Clutter on a weekend when I had time to relax and start a new book. In the first 24 hours, I...

  • Read the first chapter
  • Put the book down
  • Went to the boxes of photos and mementos I brought back from my dad's house and organized them by type, labeled the boxes, and finally put the boxes away in my closet. 
  • Resumed reading half of the second chapter
  • Put the book down
  • Took out the trash and the recycleables
  • Turned on the TV to watch a show, deleted 20% of what had been stored on the DVR
  • Resumed reading after the show
  • Put the book down
  • Made a pot of spaghetti 
  • [Okay, the spaghetti interruption was just b/c I was hungry, but then I] Finished the spaghetti, immediately put all dishes in the dishwasher and ran the cycle even though it was only 3/4 full (which I never do)
  • Resumed reading
  • Sorted all of the mail that had been accumulating in the bin for weeks
  • Started to organize the boxes in the dining room that have been sitting there since I moved six months ago
It took me longer to read the first four chapters than it did to finish the rest of the book. I am so conscious of my parents tendencies that last month when I mistakenly bought a 4-lb. bag of sugar and then discovered an existing 4-lb. bag of sugar already sitting in my pantry, I went into a panic. "OMG, I have it!! I'm turning into my dad!! It's starting!!" 

Growing up with my parents, it seemed normal to form an emotional attachment to things. It wasn't until I was living by myself in small spaces that I realized I had to let go of things. And even then, I have taken the path of least resistance. When I left for school, I stored many items in my great grandmother's basement, until I was informed that it had flooded and everything was thrown out. When I moved to DC I left many things with family members for storage, they haven't yet complained or had floods yet. Then, when I started packing my DC apartment to move to a larger unit in the area, well, that's when I started to write the book reviews because I started reading all of the books on my shelf so I could donate them. Then I bought a Kindle. And stored all of the non-book things I don't really need but still need to emotionally part with in boxes stashed in the dining room. It's not a hell room, but the burden feels very similar. 

I enjoyed reading Year of No Clutter for a couple of reasons. First, it's a cautionary tale. I clearly have hoarder genes and need to be careful not to let things go to the point where it becomes an overwhelming secret shame. Second, I have been avoiding sorting through a lot of the attachments she is dealing with. While my situation is not at the same level (I would have no problem saying no to the question, "Do you want this piano?"), I need to stop comforting myself by comparing myself to people who have a bigger clutter problem, and to find a way to just let go of *things* without feeling like I'm throwing away the sentiment behind it. That is just garbage. Literally. 

If you have a battle with clutter, you may enjoy the book for the simple fact that you can relate at some level. I don't know what neat person would think of it, because I have so few of them in my life and absolutely no insight on the thought process of neat people. I envy them, but I do not understand them. I suspect unless you or your loved ones struggle with clutter, you may not enjoy the book as much because it probably seems like a trivial problem to "normal" people. The book sometimes feels like a series of "Here's how crazy I am..." sidetracks, which are often times funny, but sometimes either fall flat or are ick-inducing. Other times it feels like the author is trying to justify keeping things, rather than doing what she set out to do - which is clean out the clutter. I won't spoil anything for you about how the year ends and how she defines success or defeat, but if you stayed interested enough to read this entire review without being completely annoyed, you'd probably really enjoy the book. 

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