On being involuntarily messy

All my usual channels are singing the praises of Tim Harford's new book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives , including the usually reliable Tyler Cowen, at Marginal Revolution, who said "it is Tim’s best and deepest book".

Maybe. Most of the reviews spend a lot of time telling me that messy people are more creative than neat people, and that, in fact, being neat is a gigantic waste of time. They may just be seizing something between hard covers that validates their own impulses (there are only two kinds of popular nonfiction books: "everything you know is wrong" and "what you've always believed is absolutely the only sensible thing to believe": this is the second kind). Maybe the book is more subtle than that.

All I can say is, what I've read about it has nothing to do with my life. I am a naturally messy person. Does that mean I'm creative?

No. It means I'm a slob. Or I was. I had huge piles of paper on my desk. My bedroom floor was invisible under books, clothes, record jackets, plates, whatever. I could never find anything. I lost or forgot important things. I bought replacements for things I already had. My library books were always overdue. Because the physical mess reflected my internal mess: I was a disorganized procrastinator. I didn't like it. It didn't make me happy. And it didn't in any way help me to be creative.

Gradually, over some tough years, I became neater. As anyone who knows me can tell you, that doesn't mean I'm some kind of obsessive neatnik. But I don't have huge piles of paper, my inbox doesn't have many emails in it, various documents are in folders that I can find and retrieve. I no longer use checks as bookmarks (and thus lose them), and I make my bed every morning.

I like it. I like it a lot. My organization, hard won though it is, is what keeps me productive, and, yes, creative. It has made me a calmer and less anxious person.

As I said, maybe the Harford book is more subtle than the reviews indicate. But it more sounds like one of those Gladwell-ish "everything is divided into two categories, and the category everyone has always thought is the desirable one is actually the one that is awful, and the one you should abhor" magazine articles blown up to book length. To his credit, while Malcolm Gladwell has committed a couple of books, his best work (and, don't get me wrong, he is genuinely entertaining, and often enlightening) is at magazine article length. Almost anything, including the Thirty Years War, can be dealt with most effectively at shorter length.

Going on too long is its own sort of mess. So I will stop right here.