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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Roz Chast

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.


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Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

By Randy O. Frost, Gail Steketee

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.


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

By Margareta Magnusson

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. 


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Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

By Susan Strasser, Alice Austen

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.


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Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale

By Adam Minter

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.


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