Magazine article The Spectator

'Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and Act', by Barry Yourgrau - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and Act', by Barry Yourgrau - Review

Article excerpt

The enormous desk on which I am writing this is swamped by four precarious piles of books, one topped by an ancient Filofax, another by a small framed photograph of a long-dead friend. I still bear the bruises from last week when I fell out of bed and triggered an avalanche of the book mountain on the bedside table, with its cache of notebooks, pens, pencils, water carafe and three reading lamps, one of which has been without a bulb for three months. I don't actually know where anything is, and have to ask my wife if I need to find a particular title. Barry Yourgrau understands my

inability to tidy up my study and my life.

In Mess , he tries to clarify the differences between collectors (as we neurotics would like to pretend we are), clutterers and 'extreme hoarders'. Having read and relished Yourgrau's book, though, I can't see why the 'extreme' is needed here. True, I insist on buying a new bottle of gin before the old one is finished, but there's a difference between that and having six dusty unopened bottles. Only the latter counts as hoarding, and having 12 or 24 gin bottles is not so much extreme as spendthrift; whereas having the same number of bottles of a single good wine in your cellar is simply prudent. Surely all hoarding is pathological, unless the gin lake is intended as an inflation-proofing investment.

Yourgrau pretty much reaches the same conclusion when he writes:

Objects serve as a means of comfort, even as repairers of damaged egos. Collecting, however, is considered respectable behavior, while hoarding resides in the shadows of pathology.

Hoarders are not as selective as collectors, 'have no compunction about owning multiples of the same thing, as opposed to unique items to complete a set'. Collectors take pride in what they own, even show it off, where hoarders are ashamed and try not to display their stuff, which they don't even take care of, though they can't bear to part with any of it. Clutter, which includes the towers of books that climb the staircases of my house, is different -- sometimes dangerous, but different.

In Queens, New York, Yourgrau and his Russian-American food-writer girlfriend maintain a pair of his-and-hers flats, plus another in Istanbul, and her party-giving mother has her own place in Queens. The girlfriend is a character in the book, variously disguised as 'Cosima' (she hates the name), 'Medea' and 'Prunella', and delivers the ultimatum to Yourgrau to clean up his flat sufficiently to hold a dinner party for her and her mother. …

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