Home Comforts The Art and Science of Keeping House (1999, Scribner)

Review :

"Each day I long for home/ long for the sight of home." -The Odyssey.

The entire home industry, in its maneuver to sell us household goods by selling the promise of home itself, is some kind of Kincadian nightmare.* Despite peddling keys at a relentless pace ("How about this Hot Chocolate Pot No Never mind then; how about this cute little cabin of maple syrup"), it will never unlock the glowing house full of loving people and hot food. "It comes down to the product versus the promise. It's not ... the new pots and pans but the idea of the cozy family meals they will provide. People are finding that their homes are full of stuff, but their lives are littered with empty promises." -Peter Walsh.

This book is about how a home is really created: by its continuous activity, its own rhythms and routines. "Housework done in the seven basic areas outlined in this book is the source of most of the good things that make a place homelike -fresh sheets, good meals, airy, clean, orderly rooms, and so forth. But other things also affect the tone of the home. ... It is a cliche, but true, that a room that looks lived in looks more homey. This implies not that you should be less neat but that you should actually live in your rooms. When you talk, read and write, play music or games, or sew, you leave traces of this in the room. These traces then invite people not simply to look but also to be engaged. It makes them feel as though the room exists for people, to live in and do things in. Faked signs of life make the room feel desolate and lonely. Signs of real life make the room feel comforting and warm." (p.28-29)

She also notes that it is easier to make a small home feel homey than a large home. That makes sense when you consider that the more space you have, the harder it is to live in all of it. Large houses with multiple living rooms and dining rooms still tend only to use one of each; the superfluous rooms become well-preserved displays (or junk drawers). On the other end of the spectrum, a lived in room literally loses its warmth when it becomes a neglected mess; when I leave the laundry out to dry for days, it stops being cozy and takes on the cold feel of a crime scene.

She stresses that "it's about how a home works, not how it looks." (p.4) "Making a home attractive helps you feel at home, but not nearly so much as most of us seem to think, if you gauge by the amounts of money we spend on home furnishings [and interior decorating]. In fact, too much attention to the looks of the home can backfire if it creates a stage-set feeling instead of the authenticity of a genuinely homey place. And going in for nostalgic pastimes -canning, potting, sewing, making Christmas wreaths, painting china, decorating cookies- will not work either. I count myself among those who find these things fun to do, but I know from experience that you cannot make a home by imitating the household chores and crafts of a past era. Ironically, people are led into the error of playing house instead of keeping house by a genuine desire for a home and its comforts. Nostalgia means, literally, 'homesickness.'" (p.7)

If you are among the "far too many people who long for a home even though they seem to have one," you should give this book a look. (p.8)


One Last Note:
Many reviewers on Amazon scoff at this book, denouncing its anal retentive standards. Yes, she tells you how to clean anything you can think of, but nowhere does she say you have to do everything she explains. In fact, she says very plainly that the necessary level of housekeeping is simply "the lowest level at which health and safety can be preserved and enough comfort and order maintained to ensure that people want to spend time at home, feel restored there, and do not have that haggard feeling of homelessness that travelers sometimes have even when they are perfectly well housed." (p. 13) She also states that "the housekeepers who have done the most to give housekeeping a bad name are those who are compulsive about it. Compulsive housekeepers clean houses that are already spotless. They arrange their shoes along the color spectrum in a straight line and suffer anxiety if the towels on the shelf do not all face the same way. They expend enormous effort on what they think of as housekeeping, but their homes often are not welcoming. Who can feel at home in a place where the demand for order is so exaggerated In housekeeping, more is not always better. Order and cleanliness should not cost more than the value they bring in healthy, efficiency, and convenience." (p.11) She goes on to say "I have deliberately offered more detail than you may really need. My spring cleaning list, for example, is so inclusive that my mother (a most thorough spring cleaner) objected to it. But let me assure you, as I tried to assure her, that I am not recommending that you do every task on the list or else move into a hotel. The list is intended to be inspirational and suggestive, so as to help beginners survey what would be useful in their own homes and avoid overlooking anything potentially important to them." (p.17-18)

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