The best books to read when you’re decluttering (or trying to avoid it)

Who am I?

I didn’t choose clutter as a topic—it chose me. Around the time Marie Kondo became a tidying-up sensation, my mother suffered a breakdown and could no longer live in her dangerously cluttered house. I’m an only child, so it fell to me to figure what to do with it all. So much stuff! It got me wondering: How did clutter get to be such a huge problem for so many people? The books on this list helped answer that question and made me feel less alone in the struggle with stuff. I hope you find them useful too.

I wrote...

Clutter: An Untidy History

By Jennifer Howard,

Book cover of Clutter: An Untidy History

What is my book about?

Inspired by the painful process of cleaning out her mother’s house, Jennifer Howard sets her own personal struggle with clutter against a meticulously researched history of just how the developed world came to drown in material goods. In an age when Amazon can deliver anything at the click of a mouse and decluttering guru, Marie Kondo can become a reality TV star, Howard’s bracing analysis has never been more timely. Slim and compelling, Clutter is a book for anyone struggling to understand why they have so much stuffand what to do about it.

The books I picked & why

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Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir

By Roz Chast,

Book cover of Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir

Why this book?

Anybody who’s had to clean out a family home knows what a messy, emotional, tedious, painful, sometimes lonely, occasionally humorous process it can be. Cartoonist Roz Chast captures all of that in this graphic memoir about helping her elderly parents move out of the New York City apartment they’d lived in for decades. Like me, Chast is an only child. That made a tough job even tougher, and she’s astonishingly frank about the ups and downs. If you find yourself having to help a loved one downsize, this book will make you feel less alone, no matter how many siblings you have. It helped me get through the worst of cleaning out my mother’s house.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

By Randy O. Frost, Gail Steketee,

Book cover of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Why this book?

Randy Frost and Gail Steketee have done groundbreaking research on hoarding disorder, and their work has helped shift the conversation away from the traditional shame-and-blame approach to the subject. In these case studies, they dig into what drives individuals to accumulate extreme amounts of clutter. Emphasis on individuals—each of these people has a unique, often fascinating story, and Frost and Steketee treat them with compassion and understanding. Stuff helped me understand that forced cleanouts and harsh interventions don’t solve the problem, they only inflict more trauma.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter

By Margareta Magnusson,

Book cover of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter

Why this book?

Dealing with a lifetime’s worth of possessions feels like a heavy task—heavy in every sense. In this breezy book, Margareta Magnuson reminds readers that it doesn’t have to be a drag. Figuring out what to do with all your things can be cathartic, liberating, even fun, a chance to relive some of the highlights of your life and celebrate where you’ve landed. It’s also a kindness to your nearest and dearest. As she wisely observes, “A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.” I wish I could go back in time and give a copy of this book to my mother with that passage highlighted. 

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

By Susan Strasser, Alice Austen (photographer),

Book cover of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

Why this book?

How many times have you tossed something in the trash without thinking about it? That throwaway mentality would be unrecognizable to earlier generations of Americans, who reused and repurposed and made do, because they had to. As I went through the process of emptying out my mother’s overstuffed house, I wondered when our things had gotten the better of us. Susan Strasser, a historian who’s also written about housework and consumerism, explains how and why Americans’ attitudes toward trash have shifted so radically since the country’s early days.

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale

By Adam Minter,

Book cover of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale

Why this book?

Journalist Adam Minter comes from a family of junk dealers, so it makes sense that he’d be fascinated by what happens to the things we get rid of. Where does it all go? Like me, he asked that question after he dropped off a load of his late mother’s possessions at a local Goodwill. Being a journalist, he decided to go find out what really happens to our discarded shoes, textiles, china, electronics, cars, and more. His reporting took him all over the planet, from Mexico to India to Japan to West Africa. Secondhand made me think harder about the afterlives of things we discard. As that old saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cartoonists, order and clutter, and OCD?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cartoonists, order and clutter, and OCD.

Cartoonists Explore 33 books about cartoonists
Order And Clutter Explore 8 books about order and clutter
OCD Explore 19 books about OCD

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Everything Is an Emergency: An Ocd Story in Words & Pictures, Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More, and The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify if you like this list.