Abrahamson, Eric, & Freedman, David H. A Perfect Mess: The hidden benefits of disorder

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

In life, there are tidy, organised people, with lives like a showroom. And there are the rest of us.

A lot of readers will be seduced by a title suggesting affirmation of their clutter. In a world of storage and Martha Stewart, here emerges an antidote. Sick of disorder guilt? Abrahamson and Freedman will make you feel better. Not enamoured with the proclamations of neat nazis, they weave a scruffy yarn in favour of living with at least a little clutter.

An interesting theory, apparent to anyone who prefers their own piles-of-stuff-on-the-desk system to an empty surface. But this is a highly protracted premise, and mess is difficult to define. A Perfect Mess is crammed with examples of the benefits of a messy approach to life (the authors’ bias is crystal clear). Some are inspiring, such as the hardware and bookstores that succeed in defiance of market models. Others are hokey, or hopelessly vague: in the chapter titled Optimising Mess, jaywalking is deemed beneficial to cities. But only some jaywalking, and only some cities.

And across all these examples, the net is cast so wide it stretches and breaks. When you find yourself reading about speed humps vs bumps in the latter pages of a long, business-focussed book about mess and disorder, well, you’re a long way fromKansas, Dorothy.

It’s untidily organised, too, with floppy structure meandering drunkenly across subjects, theories, and examples. This makes it even freakier when the authors get all academic on you and introduce their quirky lists. Twelve different types of mess range from “time sprawl” to “distortion”. Types of messy and neat people include “order terrorist” and “mess savant”.

Merely gauche when categorising, A Perfect Mess is insufferable when wielding a broad stereotype. Professional organisers are bad; messy retailers good. Germans are intolerant of mess and expect order, inJapan they are “quicker to get rid of old possessions to make room for the new”, while the French are hyperofficious. Sweeping proclamations, tainted by neither vigorous research nor balanced argument.

It has to be said: this book is a mess.