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State of disorder

December 31, 2006  San Diego Union-Tribune

I was supposed to review this book called “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder.” But I lost it in a pile of clutter.


MICHAEL HOGUE / MCT illustration
Actually, I do not have a pile of clutter large enough to hide this occasionally hilarious, sometimes insightful, often intriguing yet frequently frustrating 327-page tome, even though reading it almost made me wish I did.

Full disclosure: I have been called, among other things (not all of them mentionable), a pioneer of the organizing industry – an industry that co-authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman take great glee in bashing throughout their mess-glorifying book. In fact, the parts at which I laughed most uncontrollably were their descriptions of what it was like hanging out with professional organizers on the job and at a National Association of Professional Organizers conference held in San Diego.


A Perfect Mess – The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place
Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman; Little, Brown, 327 pages, $25.99

But Abrahamson and Freedman are not content to puncture the perceived pomposity of some of my unsuspecting colleagues. They also repeatedly ridicule (to the point of redundancy) the advice given in books about getting organized. I was disappointed – OK, maybe relieved – that these mess maniacs didn't make fun of any of the three I've written.

Not that the authors are totally against the concept of being organized. They even recommend a few organizing tips when it suits them, in spite of their proclaimed distrust of such advice. (Some of these tips are of questionable value, if not downright wacky. Hiding clutter behind heavy appliances is hazardous. They also recommend renting a self-storage unit with the money you otherwise might spend on a professional organizer; how this ongoing expenditure would save you money is never explained.)

The problem is, they wait until Page 53 to reveal that this seemingly contradictory acceptance of organization is at the core of their premise. And what is their premise? Well, it's not nearly as radical as what you might imagine after reading the 52 pages that precede this “clarification”:

Excerpt from A Perfect Mess

Considering how little evidence the pros lay out to support the claim that being organized is worth the effort, the world seems to put a lot of energy into fretting about being messy. The determination to get more organized routinely shows up in lists of New Year's resolutions ... suggesting that for many people, being more orderly feels nearly as important as getting healthy, having a satisfying career, being financially sound, and maintaining rewarding relationships.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest the most people worry about neatness and organization. They feel they are too disorganized or messy, or seem so to significant others, or that their workplaces are dysfunctional with excessive messiness or disorderliness. Many of the people interviewed for this book have powerful childhood memories related to neatness or messiness. Among the most common: fear related to a parent's anger at the disturbing of a museum-like living room; contentment in being surrounded by a sea of toys; enchantment at the jammed, disorganized, mysterious trove in the attic or basement.

“Let's be clear on a few important points. ... We're not saying that messier is always better. ... Burying oneself in extraneous clutter and operating without rhyme or reason quickly becomes paralyzing. ... Rather, we argue that there is an optimal level of mess for every aspect of every system ... many of us are already operating at a more-or-less appropriate level of mess but labor under the mistaken belief that we're failing in some way because of it.

“Also we are in no way saying that people should be slobs. ...”

Hey, that's good to know! Because the book's title gave me a somewhat different impression. And throughout most of the first couple of chapters, that mess-promoting message is reinforced. So it would have been helpful if the authors had placed the above explanation about 50 pages earlier. (Perhaps they thought that would have seemed too organized.)

Of course, from a marketing standpoint the bait-and-switch tactic makes perfect sense. The clever title provides an irresistible hook for reeling in those multitudes of people who are tired of being made to feel like second-class citizens for their untidy habits. It's like a clarion call to the messy masses: “Slobs of the world, unite! Throw off the tyranny of the tidy. We are better than those up-tight neatniks!”

Once you get into the book, however, it becomes apparent how misleading that hook is. (Bear in mind this criticism is coming from an author whose first book was titled “More Time for Sex: The Organizing Guide for Busy Couples” in a shameless effort to garner publicity. It worked.)

“A Perfect Mess” doesn't really tell us “How crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place,” as the sub-subtitle claims. But through the often-entertaining case histories and examples, the truth slowly emerges: What the authors call “mess” and “disorder” are actually various qualities such as flexibility, randomness and improvisation. So instead of extolling the implied joys of disorganization, Abrahamson and Freedman are promoting the concept that being flexibly organized is often more effective than being rigidly organized in the linear, highly structured manner that many people seem to believe is the “right” way to be organized.

Well, amen to that, but it's hardly a revelation. Other authors (including myself) have been advocating this approach since the last millennium. Way back in the early 1990s, thanks to books like “Time Management for Unmanageable People” by Ann McGee-Cooper and “Organizing for the Creative Person” by Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping, the idea of organizing in nontraditional ways was already becoming popular, and since then numerous books have expanded on this concept. Yet the authors make no mention of them, preferring to rely on the cliches of buttoned-down, super-tidy organizing advice as a lazy way of bolstering their argument.

(Not that I can really blame anyone for wanting to take potshots at what I've come to think of as “the Cult of the Organized.” The relentless glorification of the narrow, super-neat perception of organization – much like the deification of impossibly thin models – demands to be rebelled against. And the smug superiority of certain “organizing experts” is ripe for lampooning.)

Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University's business school, and Freedman writes for major magazines and is a contributing editor and columnist at Inc. Together, these mess mavens have fashioned a book that could have been titled “True Tales of the Strangely Organized, Volumes I and II.” (Not a good title, but an honest one.) It's a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes about fascinating people who have made their mark in business, science, medicine, technology, urban planning, art and music in part by being what I'd call idiosyncratically organized. From Alexander Fleming's fabled accidental discovery of penicillin in his cluttered lab to J.S. Bach's little-known propensity for rampant improvisation, the book overflows with interesting details. (If you've ever wanted to learn about something called “stochastic resonance,” there's even a section about that. Really.)

But wait, there's more. And more. Seems like there's everything but the proverbial kitchen sink in this book – it's bloated to twice the size it should be, stuffed with extraneous material (some of the most intriguing bits bear almost no relation to the messiness topic) and sprinkled here and there with redundant observations. All of which makes it tempting to call this book a mess. But it's more like a hodgepodge of well-told stories and humorous commentaries clumsily knitted together with pages of messy filler, as the authors try (and often fail) to connect these pieces, however tenuously, to their professed premise.

It's obvious that Abrahamson and Freedman put an enormous amount of work into this book, so it's a shame they didn't receive the editorial guidance their efforts deserved. (Good editors, like good organizers, serve two primary functions: to gently and unerringly guide you toward removing deadwood and extraneous material that will not be missed once gone; and to help you rearrange what should be kept so that the most effective and enjoyable outcome is achieved.)

Then again, it's possible that helpful input was given but lost in a pile.

That could be what happened with the chapter oddly called “The Politics of Mess,” which has virtually nothing to do with politics in the conventional sense of the word. This chapter features an argument for the virtues of a “sprawling, messy city.” According to the authors, Paris was much nicer before 1850, when it was “dizzyingly disorganized.” They present an interesting capsule history of the city's redesign but fail to even mention that it turned out a spectacular success; their tunnel vision allows them to only focus on their tortured thesis that the “maze of cramped alleys and skewed rows of apartment buildings” were somehow more appealing than the post-1850 Paris.

The same section offers another bizarre pronouncement: “What America needs is more cities like Los Angeles.” There are quite a few good reasons to disagree with that statement, but the authors blithely ignore them. (Again, here's where a bit of diplomatic editorial guidance could have made a difference: “Hey, guys, lose that L.A. example. With all due respect, it makes you sound like idiots.”)

If you're hoping this book will help you benefit from your messy tendencies, there are more efficient ways to spend your money and your time. But if you're the kind of person who enjoys digging through piles of clutter to find something worthwhile, then “A Perfect Mess” might be just what you've been looking for.

Harriet Schechter usually writes about clutter control for the Homescape section, where she rarely has the opportunity to sneak in a mention of “Conquering Chaos at Work” (Fireside/Simon & Schuster). She founded The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in 1986 and owns