The Joys Of Cleaning House

The Buddhists say that attachment to material things is the source of much suffering in the world. In the past few days, I have been inclined to agree with them. Now I don’t of course mean to say that being an impoverished wayfarer is any better of a proposition than hoarding. That has tons of its own inconveniences. What I will say however is that having a few things, but high-quality ones, is the optimal solution – not to mention increasingly easy and feasible nowadays with the rise of e-books, online services, and cloud computing.

Take books. At one point I had about 250 of them, clogging up my storage space. Half of them I hadn’t read, and of the other half, I knew myself well enough that the vast majority would remain unread. What’s the point of keeping them then? I gave away 225 of them to the local library, keeping only the most useful, expensive, and/or sentimentally valuable of them. There are now far more books (150 and counting) on my Kindle library. So long as Amazon doesn’t delete them (but there’s a solution for that) and there’s no peak oil/zombie apocalypse, they’re as safe and permanent as any physical collection. Safer, if anything.

And best of all, they only ever take up the room of a laptop or tablet… if not a USB flash drive.

The fewer-but-better rule pretty much applies to everything. Clothes – yes. Far better to have two good changes of clothing than ten dingy T-shirts and nondescript pants. Cooking – yes; the best chefs tend to rely on a surprisingly limited stock of ingredients and kitchen utensils. Fitness – again, yes. You don’t even need a gym membership. Your own body and maybe a kettlebell will suffice. A bag of rice and a box of cheapish gold jewelry to round things off for the survivalists who worry about worst case of scenarios. Even most of your important documents can now be kept exclusively in an online application like Evernote.

Of course you’ll have other things for your hobbies. For instance, I ski, so I have my skis and ski boots. But as a rule, these things will occupy very little space relative to the general trash you find lying about.

I estimate I’ve disposed of about 75% of my possessions by volume in the past few days. The room is now much less cluttered, there are fewer things to distract me from productive activities. I think the key to actually going through with disposing of many things is to do it quickly, with iron-cast criteria such as, “Have I used this item in the past month? Will I realistically use it the next?” If it doesn’t fulfill them, then purge them ruthlessly like the NKVD. The problem with putting shit on sale is that much of the stuff you are going to sell is cheap and will earn you cents on the dollars you originally bought them with; furthermore, it will stretch the disposal process out to several months. This creates a lot of unnecessary bother over a period of several months and defeats the entire purpose of drastically de-cluttering your life.

I might have missed out on perhaps as much as $500 had I ended up successfully selling all my books on Amazon or eBay. It sounds like a big amount, but then when you think about the process of listing them all and then mailing them out to customers (some of whom may be unhappy and return them), not to mention the opportunity costs on energy and happiness levels such a dull and monotone task would impose, I’m sure the per hour rate would be very low. Probably close to minimum wage. For comparison some of the journalistic articles I’ve written have netted me $350 for the day or so that I spent researching and writing them.

The one place where hoarding is definitely worth it? Your bank account and other financial assets. They are not going anywhere but they will not burden you down either – as long as everything is properly insured and/or hedged.


  1. I’m pretty good at getting rid of things, but one thing I insist on is having lots of books around me. Individual objects have a personality and character of their own, as well as the ancillary value of serving as decoration. If a book is of lasting quality or I’m going to read it more than once, I want it in book form.

    I do see a use for e-readers for “disposable” lit, i.e. books on topical subjects that I won’t read more than once. But my local library is just as good for that.

    In some ways I’m going back in time: just bought a turntable, of all things.

    BTW Hermann Hesse wrote a charming essay, “Books on Trial,” about this subject.

    • More power to you then. 🙂

      I noticed about a year ago that I now simply enjoy reading books in electronic format more than I do in physical format. So much easier to highlight things, search inside them, etc.

      This hasn’t always been the case. I guess you could say I “evolved” at some level. Homo digitus.

      It’s not just a matter of age either. My dad made the transition a few years ago, before I did funnily enough.

  2. I share this sentiment. There’s a company in London that will deliver to you the exact amounts of ingredients you need to cook particular dish. No need to hoard spices and souses anymore.

    • Okay, I think that’s a bit too hardcore even for me. A spice and seasonings rack doesn’t occupy THAT much space. 🙂 I will be keeping mine.

  3. I switched to Kindle and iBooks some time ago, but I’m never going to throw out any of my old books. Sentimental value, plus they look great. Same with music on cassette tapes. Years ago I read an interview with director Wes Anderson where he said that he always kept the receipts he got when buying books in the books themselves. So for years I did that too. I know where and when I bought a lot of them.

    I’ve got A LOT of clothes. At least 80 different dress shirts, for example. In the office environment sartorial monotony is aggressively frowned upon by women. They think it’s creepy, are offended by it when they notice it, always gossip about which men are bigger slobs than others. I started buying a lot of clothes years ago to avoid that, but then to my surprise I discovered that I like the process of shopping. Appraising subtle differences in style, really concentrating on trying to see what I like more. It can be fun.

    I don’t cook at all though. Never understood why anyone does. I buy food, unload it into the fridge and the cabinets in the kitchen, and then periodically take some of it out and eat it. The stove is what I really should get rid of. Unlike books and cassettes, it has no sentimental value for me whatsoever.

    • You know, you might appreciate cooking in much the same as shopping. Both activities have a lot in common — both involve the mixing and matching of many subtleties. With cooking, you can create something truly unique and ‘bespoke’, something just for your needs and tastes.

      Most processed food items are really lacking in nutrients.

  4. I already live a minimalist life. Even so, I might have too many clothing. Time to clean up.

  5. Couldn’t agree more with this. Material possessions to a superfluous degree (which includes most westerners) only serve as a sort of opiate. I don’t even think it’s so much about saving space and money as it is about maintaining a connection to what’s actually important in life. The fact that we’re the most materially wealthy civilization in history while at the same time being as psychologically unhealthy as we are says a lot to me (1 in 4 Americans suffer from mental illness from what I recall).

    The Buddhists are definitely on to something here; I’m just not a fan of the dogma that goes along with it.

  6. Funny thing, I just coincidentally came across this post while taking a break from decluterring my place. I will take that as a sign that I am on the right track.
    For months now, I had been planning on trying to sell my old books by going to one or more of the many used bookstores in my city. Not so much for the money as because it seemed to me a bit of a sin to throw out books. Of course, the extra bother was just enough to make me procrastinate inordinately.
    I too have come to prefer e-ink reading to paper books, and am looking forward to the day when my entire library will be immaterial. Truth be told, I’ve been hoarding most of my books more for vanity reasons than for their practical or sentimental value.
    I have also started scanning all my old papers (my scanner can handle dozens of pages at a time) and another plan is to rip and copy my sizeable DVD collection onto a hard drive (with a backup of course).
    Far from being a neat freak, I am a total slob and generally oblivious to my surroundings. But my experience has been that the more minimalist my place is, the less of a chance I will end up being swamped by stuff I don’t need/want/see until it’s too late.
    Anyway, many thanks for this post and others.