I read Barry Yourgrau’s book in one sitting. Technically, I listened to it, and I didn’t sit much at all. I did my housework for the day and walked 8 miles. I also started organizing and sorting through some stuff, because it’s impossible to fall into a story like this without becoming uncomfortably aware of any mess in one’s own environment. Mess is destined to become a classic in the field.
Yourgrau writes about how his girlfriend of 15 years gives him an ultimatum to clean up his apartment, after he refuses to let her in one day. She and her mother nag him that he needs to clean up and invite them over for dinner. It takes nearly two years. This is so interesting for so many reasons!
Yourgrau goes into fastidious detail about the roots of his attachment to stuff. He interviews experts in the field. He pins various people down on how they would categorize his problem. He begins with classic procrastination, unable to make himself do so much as sort mail or run a vacuum cleaner. What seems to spark action is when he conceives the idea of turning it into research and writing a book.
The book distinguishes between ‘clutterers’ and hoarders, based on the clutterer’s ability to let go of things and the hoarder’s extreme reluctance. In my own work, I would say that there are more gradations than that. I would go so far as to say that disorganization and squalor are the default for humans, and that cleanliness and order only come about as the result of deliberate training. What we now see as ‘mess’ is purely a cultural standard; most people throughout history probably had dirt under their nails and slept in the same room with livestock. Only in the modern era can we afford enough paper, books, and clothes to fill up our homes.
This is a fascinating book, and it includes a surprising mystery that I won’t spoil here. I do have a string of random observations about Yourgrau’s story. First, he shares a memory of his mom packing drinks for him in a repurposed Dettol bottle. Um, that’s a cleanser? I felt really, really sad that this seemed to be a fond childhood memory. Perhaps some of the roots of the desire to hang on to empty packaging and bags sprout from a taught familial appreciation for this sort of frugality. I sure hope they’re good at rinsing things.
Another thing I noticed was that Yourgrau uses his girlfriend’s iPad throughout his research project. He starts documenting his process through photographs. He and another clutterer have a discussion about how stuff works as a sort of mental tracking system, that seeing objects helps them remember things. This is a huge insight. Paper, books, articles, and notebooks tend to be one of the biggest issues for my people. The iPad seems to help Yourgrau to get his head around the project. It’s almost like it’s a vacuum cleaner of data. I had a similar experience when I got my iPhone 4S and gradually started feeling able to leave the house without a book in my hand. My work is paper-free now, and I’m gradually recording and tracking my old paper notes.
Mess is an account of how a highly intelligent and educated person explores his irrational side. He walks us through his thought process and his research, in between bouts of hauling trash and scrubbing at scary stains. It has its hilarious moments. Yourgrau does a beautiful job of portraying himself as stubborn, crabby, capable of grudging yet gradual change. I rooted for him and I found his process totally realistic.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.