A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place
By Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman
Little, Brown and Co. | 2007 | US$25.99 | ISBN-10: 0316114758 | 336 pages

It is the authors’ contention in this book that “Moderately disorganised people, institutions and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative and in general more effective than highly organised ones.” In support of their thesis they give many examples of individuals and businesses that prove their point. Apparently it was Alexander Fleming’s messy laboratory that led to the discovery of penicillin and Einstein, “godfather of the science of useful mess”, had a very untidy desk at Princeton; messy desks, the authors believe, are “the stuff of cranky genius”. They are very impressed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, who apparently refuses to schedule his day in advance but seems to get by all right.

They are very dismissive of filing cabinets, suggesting that ideas get buried and forgotten when they are filed neatly away; an untidy desk with piles of teetering papers can creatively link disparate ideas when two of them by chance tumble out of the pile at the same time. A neat grass lawn, the badge of honour of suburban life, arouses their special ire: do people not know that they are very high maintenance, use up heaps of precious water and do not look half as interesting as gardens that are naturally landscaped? Neatness, they aver, has for most of us “become an end in itself”, generating a huge, unnecessary industry (in the US, naturally) to service it. Indeed, very clean houses, they say, have been proved to cause allergies; good old household germs are important to build up immunity.

By the time they discuss traffic (it gets worse when large, traffic-flow roads are put in, as they attract more cars and therefore more jams) or jaywalkers (who have fewer accidents than people who cross roads at fixed intersections without bothering to look) the authors are evangelical in their commitment to the gospel of disorder. Tragedies can occur because of society’s obsession with tidiness, such as the mother who was stabbed to death by her 12-year-old daughter during a row about her messy bedroom. Then, just when the reader wants to say, “Hey, wait a minute: do you want to be operated on by a creatively messy surgeon, whose scalpels are strewn haphazardly around the operating theatre?” the authors grudgingly concede that order might be necessary in some areas. They even allow that sometimes mess can be pathological, treating the reader to an awesome example of dysfunctional living: in 1947 130 tons of junk were removed from a boarded-up New York mansion, along with the bodies of the two elderly brothers who had lived there and who had suffocated under the piles of newspapers. Mess good: hoarding bad.

This, then, is the theme of the book (which, I must point out, is divided very neatly into chapters, with an organised list of source notes at the end, along with an alphabetical index). But this is the point: “mess,” the authors maintain, “isn’t necessarily an absence of order”. Ah ha! So it really is order – but under another name. I would describe it as “lateral order”, after the concept of “lateral thinking”, developed in the 1960s by the writer Edward de Bono, who recognised that ideas are not usually generated by a fixed, logical process but by a seemingly oblique and wayward one. This simply means that “order” doesn’t have to mean “tidiness” – and whoever said it did, apart from frazzled mothers?

The trouble with this re-definition of “mess” into a deeper, less bourgeois, more meaningful form of order, is that it won’t help all those readers who eagerly latch on to the book’s title but who, at the same time, lead messy, unproductive lives from which they yearn to be rescued. These are not people who are pathologically disordered, just those with disorganised wasteful ways, whose desks are literally chaotic, and from which random pieces of paper don’t create a “eureka” spark when tipped together. Such people do need filing cabinets with bright labels in different colours and it is cruel to be snobby towards them.

My further criticism is that for every argument in favour of “mess” there is an equally strong argument in favour of the alternative. Some geniuses are messy, like Einstein; others are tidy like Immanuel Kant, whose daily timetable was so predictable that the locals set their clocks by him. Again, the authors generally stick to an analysis of the structures of offices and businesses. We all know how important offices are (even if we didn’t have Charles Dickens’ “Circumlocution Office” to remind us); but what about creative writers? You won’t convince me that Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, the writing of which had to be fitted around his demanding day job, was the result of a random work scheme; and Thomas Mann, in his Germanic fashion, toiled all day, every day, at his desk, just as any other 9-5 worker. On my own desk (stacked with books and papers in neat, though not colour-coded, piles) I have a photo of William Faulkner – the man who wrote the brilliantly “chaotic” novel, The Sound and the Fury — at his desk: on it there is a desk lamp, a glass of water – at least I think it’s water but it could be bourbon – an inkwell, a fountain pen and a sheet of paper. Alas, we have no photo of Shakespeare.

My final caveat is a metaphysical point: the authors are a trifle cavalier about God. The orderliness of creation, as described in the opening pages of Genesis, clearly upsets them. “God is the ultimate professional organiser” is their damning verdict on their creator. Presumably God is not creative enough for these chaps. “Early church leaders were not keen on diversity of thought in their flocks”, they add, keen to show what a stuffy old strait-jacket theology is. Then with relief they fly back to physics: “The very birth of the universe itself is thought by physicists to have been a… sort of random hiccup in reality.” Really? Back upstairs, boys: you have ten minutes to tidy your bedroom.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.