Books : reviews

Eric Abrahamson, David H. Freedman.
A Perfect Mess: the hidden benefits of disorder.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2006

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 6 October 2007

We are continually being exhorted to tidy up, to organise our lives, in order to be more efficient and effective. But where is the evidence that being more organised resulting in being more effective? Abrahamson and Freedman argue that, in fact, a certain degree of "messiness" in our lives improves things. Not pathological messiness, of course, where the amount of clutter in the house or in the office becomes positively dangerous.

p277. One publication ... defines five levels of clutter ... Level III ... includes light structural damage to the home, a television stored outside, audible evidence of rodents, the presence of hazardous chemicals and broken glass, and "obvious and irritating" odors. Bear in mind there are two full levels worse than this one, but they're not for the faint of heart.

But just the right, "perfect", amount, can both save time (accounts of how much time you save finding things in a tidy system never include the overhead of establishing and maintaining that tidiness), and make you more creative, from "happy accidents" brought about by unexpected (messy) juxtapositions.

They illustrate their thesis with a variety of case studies, including a hardware shop that stocks everything, bookshop that organises by publisher, a filing system based on just three categories (Keep Me Out of Jail, Keep People Off My Back, and Interesting To Me), adding noise to cellphone calls to make them more usable, and the trombone part in Beethoven's fifth symphony.

This is a light and amusing read, with the obvious motto that nothing is appropriate in excess, including tidiness and organisation. Which, naturally, makes me feel slightly smug about my own level of organisation.