1️⃣ Sentence Synopsis
This book examines the history and significance of our individual and collective relationship to things—what fuels the desire, purchasing, and accumulation cycles in a country where both minimalism and Amazon Prime are cultural obsessions.
I went in search of Wintering, and found this book on a shelf nearby. As someone who has struggled to tame the accumulation of clutter around me (both my own and the sentimental detritus of others), I was intrigued to explore the causes of this phenomenon. This slim volume presents a personal and researched account of materialism and its underlying causes.
🔑 Key Takeaways
- One way of looking at clutter: “delayed decisions”.
- Historical examples of conspicuous consumption can be found throughout the world (for example, in late Ming China and at the height of the Italian Renaissance).
- Reviving the concept of street-sellers and street-finders (occupations that existed during Victorian times) might help alleviate the buy, organize, overwhelm, dump and landfill cycles of modern consumer life.
- Digital hoarding is a growing problem; a 2018 study found that digital hoarding behaviors are similar to physical hoarding in that those surveyed found it difficult to delete digital objects (pictures, music, video) and felt anxiety related to their accumulation.
- Be mindful of what you leave behind; the author details, throughout her book, the struggle to clear out her deceased mother’s house, and ends with the idea that we must be thoughtful in the things we choose to live with for it is ultimately future generations that will face the consequences of maximalist consumption.
💯 Strong Lines
- Lucy Worsley on middle-class anxiety in 17th century Britain: “What might be termed the ‘middle-class living room was full of superfluous objects, chosen for ornament rather than use yet cheap and not truly beautiful: a barricade of possessions intended to stabilize a precarious position in the world.”
- On post-WWII consumer patriotism: “Americans trained to scrimp and save and buy war bonds had to be coaxed back into consumerism. The trick was to appeal to their sense of greater welfare.”
- Children are trained to become “commodity fetishists”: “Beginning with the first lovey they receive as babies, children are taught to look at objects as sources of emotional stability.”
- Minimalism as spirituality: “the hunger for spiritual cleansing…has gone hand in hand with the latest minimalist outbreak in the United States and beyond. Today’s minimalist gurus turn the quest for fewer things into something close to religion. Live simply so that others may simply live. The ghosts of thrift and order, of right living, persist in such sayings, handed down in my family and many others.”
🧠 Brain Tickles
- From Victor Lebow’s article in the Journal of Retailing (an oft-quoted and succinct explanation of the connection between what we buy and who we imagine ourselves to be): Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns.
- Order creates harmony – a history of this idea from the earliest human civilizations in Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966).
🍎 Ideas & Excerpts for Teaching and Learning
There were many additional resources cited here that could make for an interesting thematic arc or course of their own, especially those that connect clutter to environmental degradation, values systems, mental health, and materialism:
- Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet about the connection of anxiety to clutter in a world where there is “an excess of everything.”
- William Morris’ “The Beauty of Life” speech (1880) connects the creation of art to clutter-free spaces: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Morris had profound influence on the Arts and Crafts movement (Mission Style) and drew on the tradition of medieval architecture that inspired him to reject Victorian manufacturing in favor of craftsmanship and quality materials.
- Lucy Worsley’s entertaining and informative documentary series If These Walls Could Talk: A History of the Home (I watched this a few years ago and highly recommend it; here is Episode 1).
- Stephen Smith’s “The American Dream and Consumer Credit” – a brief and fascinating history of the connection between the American Dream and installment-based credit plans from the Civil War to the present day.