Dirt: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House

The psychology behind cleaning goes under the cultural microscope in Dirt: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House, Mindy Lewis' essay anthology about keeping (or the attempt of keeping) things tidy.

Reading Dirt, the plethora of dust bunnies I’d been meaning to exterminate became too much to ignore. But I left them there on the floor anyway. Considering these essays are about housekeeping, I felt vaguely guilty, but luckily, there were almost as many pieces about the joys of a messy house as there were writers who would be horrified at the filth I live in.

A lot of themes can be explored through the prism of cleaning: family, feminism, race relations, even sex and death. The best of these essays use window washing or the loss of a Barbie shoe as an organic metaphor—insight into how the writer turned a corner in her life. And the subject matter of the writing goes deep. One essay summarizes recent New York history from the days of grunge, when living with cockroaches was a sign of toughness and authenticity, to the recent ascendancy of shoe closets. Another brilliantly describes the suicide of a mother who loved to make things beautiful, replaced by a cruel stepmother obsessed with a neat house. But there are less successful ones that read like self-absorbed blog entries: a straight description of finding a dead mouse under the fridge is of possible interest only to friends. And many themes, like mother-daughter tensions, get worn. There are even two essays about the “ba’lebusteh”—a Yiddish term for an impeccable housewife—that use the same joke about ball-busting. Dirt contains some polished patches but could use another round with the buffer.