Why a manual by a control freak is the best thing to read when the world is out of control

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An oil painting shows a woman in 18th-century clothing washing clothes in a laundry tub while a child plays at her feet and another woman folds a sheet.

“The Laundress,” a 1730s painting by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). From the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. | Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

You can’t stop the pandemic. But you can read a housekeeping manual that tells you how to remove any stain imaginable.

You don’t need me to tell you that the world is out of control right now. We’re living in the midst of a global pandemic, we’ll be living like this for months longer at the bare minimum, and there’s basically nothing any of us can do about it. Being alive right now means feeling powerless.

And so the question I pose to myself on a daily basis is: How do I keep from going feral with rage? And one of the answers I have found is: Read Home Comforts.

Home Comforts is a housekeeping manual written by Cheryl Mendelson, a former lawyer raised by militant housekeepers. It has developed a bit of a cult following since its first publication in 2005, and while that might seem unusual for a book about cleaning, its appeal will become clear once you have the book in your hands and heft its encyclopedic weight.

Written with a lawyer’s exhaustive eye for detail and a pedant’s belief in the inarguable correctness of one’s own opinion, Home Comforts tells you everything: the correct way to use a broom, exactly how many inches down you should fold your top sheet, why you should use carbon steel knives (and how best to care for them). It is so exacting in its didactic instructions that it makes Martha Stewart seem mellow.

Home Comforts contains descriptions of lace-edged sheets scented with lavender that are so evocative, I am hard put not to take a nap immediately upon reading them. Home Comforts has an index entry for “pets, emotional dividends of,” which leads you to a passage in which Mendelson explains that many people like pets but they are also filthy. (She also tells you how to clean up after them, should you be so weak as to acquire an animal.)

Home Comforts has a chapter devoted solely to breaking down the exact legal definition of the laundry symbols on a care label — and when you can safely disregard them and instead turn to Mendelson’s explanations of how best to care for every type of fabric that exists. Home Comforts is here to take you in hand.

In times of stress, I reflexively turn to how-to manuals written by control freaks. They are the best resource I know of to create a sense of a world that is orderly and rational and utterly within one’s powers, to inform you that there is a correct way of doing things, one that you can learn. When you can’t control the world around you, you can at least control your environment, right? That’s why I used to read organizing books in high school during exam weeks.

The pandemic is a period of stress unending, and it requires special measures. Home Comforts is the biggest and most exacting how-to manual I know of, and while I have never met Mendelson (though I’m sure she’s lovely in person), she reads like the most Type-A control freak the world has ever seen. Bless her for it. Home Comforts is what you need to take control of one corner of your life in a world that renders you powerless.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.


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