Okay! I have to organize my thoughts. One book is a primer on how to satisfy an instinct almost everyone needs to survive: putting things in order. The other book is a primer on how satisfying that need can go wrong. So first, which is which? And then, which is better in this battle?
There are 60 years and two genres between William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a fiction book published in 1954, and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a nonfiction book published in 2014. Reading them back to back, I discovered the two had thought-provoking parallels. To start, both authors are foreigners from island nations. Kondo is from Japan and Golding from the United Kingdom. Golding’s book is required reading in school classrooms across the world, and Kondo’s also has global reach as an international bestseller. (At APL her book was the #1 most popular adult nonfiction title in 2015 and 2016.)
“Think back to your own childhood,” writes Kondo, beckoning us into a universal story about growing up. “Our parents demanded that we clean up our rooms, but they, too, had never been trained in how to do that.” Naturally, what we didn’t learn about organizing our living spaces as kids influences how we do so later on. Kondo’s book is an effort to rectify the rooms of our childhoods, showing us rule by rule how to effectively tidy up our homes as adults. It satisfies the instinct for order in all of us.
Think back to your own childhood, suggests Golding between the lines of his own universal story. Remember what it’s like to live in your own little world. The kids in his book are schoolboys stranded on a tropical, deserted island. The story tracks their instinctive attempts to order themselves into a civilized band of brothers savvy enough to survive the wild until they're rescued. “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages,” says Jack early on. He’s one of the older boys who takes charge of the hunters in the tribe. Jack inevitably turns savage and becomes the antagonist of Ralph, the tribe’s elected leader and rule enforcer.
The conflicts between Ralph and Jack, civility and savagery, are flashpoints through which Golding instructs us on how imposing order can go terribly wrong. Even Kondo alludes to this: “When people revert to clutter no matter how much they tidy,” she writes, “it is not their room or their belongings but their way of thinking that is at fault.” Ralph has a rigid way of thinking. So does Jack. The result is disorder and, in their little world of “littluns,” death.
Which book wins the battle then: the one on disorder and death or the one on order and life? But wait, is the difference between them really that black and white, that tidy, given the parallels? Isn't every book – like every person – a mix of things? Magic is a mix of housekeeping, self help and do-it-yourself. Flies is a mix of do-it-yourself (campfires, hunting, shelter-building), survivalism and allegory. It’s fiction but it's truthful about the primal will to live among a group of marooned people who happen to be boys.
I'm a mix, too. I'm a reader. Once upon a time I was a boy in a family of boys. We ran wild outdoors and were savage when it suited us. As a tame adult and librarian (a keeper of order, mind you) I appreciate the rules in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But it's the Lord of the Flies, the specter on a spike amid the trees, who speaks to something primal lying dormant inside until I need it. Until we all need it. Golding’s book wins.