His Study Was a Total Mess, Like the Results of an Explosion in a Public Library*

February 11, 2010

Books overtake me. They are piled everywhere, stacked to reveal my current interests and my ongoing passions. The staircase in our house is narrowed by the books that line the wall since stairs are a handy place to keep categorized stacks of books that can also be used to display things like majorette boots, rubber alligators, and old toys and games.

While it’s true that books can be expensive, especially textbooks, you can also acquire a personal library quite cheaply by thrift shopping, garage sale-ing, and shopping the bargain shelves at bookstores. One of my favorite recent acquisitions cost less than a latte: Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman’s (2006), A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. I love this book, subtitled, “How crammed closets cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place.”

Did I say I love this book? I do. Probably because my multiple obsessions leave me in interesting messes. Plus, it’s always comforting to find even the most tenuous support for my personal pathologies. I take my comfort where I can find it, and in a world that’s currently dedicated to simplification, my complification often seems out of place. Note re: complification. Whenever I write a word that appears to be a neologism, I look it up. Despite never having used complification before, and despite the fact that it is red-lined by my computer, it IS a word and a tasty and useful one to boot. According to the Urban Dictionary at http://www.urbandictionary.com, to complify is “the act or process of making something more complicated and less simple” and “the opposite of simple.” Aha! I love complification. I live complification.

On page 145, the Mess authors note that “[O]ur personalities tend to be more clearly expressed in our disorder than in our neatness. When we are being ruthless about ridding ourselves of what naturally accumulates around us and about meticulously straightening out what remains, we are in a sense tidying our identities. The truth is, we are all at least a bit of a mess—and all the more interesting for it.”

Books and papers tend to be messy and yet, when you’re in school, a bit of a mess can be a good thing, especially if it’s organized. This might seem to be conflicting advice, so let me explain. When I was working on my dissertation, I kept a large box on the floor next to my desk. As I finished pages, I tossed the notes I’d used and the notes I’d decided not to use into the box, along with a hard copy of each page.

When I lost an entire chapter to a weird computer glitch (I’m sure this has never happened to anyone else, right?), I was able to recreate it easily. I ended up with several boxes full of materials that I’ve used multiple times since, especially the stuff that didn’t end up in my writing. This is also handy advice when you’re a student. Don’t get rid of things. Keep hard copy of all your work. Organize the whole mess somehow so you’ll be able to access things later. Yes, it’s much neater to get rid of things when the quarter is over, but you never know when you might want to use something you’ve written. I often quote myself!

As for textbooks, don’t wait until class begins to find out what text you need. There are too many ways to save money on them, so relieve some stress by starting early. Also, always check the school library to see it there’s a copy of the text on reserve; if there isn’t, ask the teacher if s/he can do this. You can also check to see if the library has the book on its shelves. This was always my strategy in English classes—I didn’t buy Moby Dick, for example; I checked him out of the public library, but the great white whale was also available at school.

Several times, I shared expensive texts with someone in a different section of the same class. Please note that anyone with whom you share a text must be trustworthy and reliable, and that this sharing functions best if you study together, especially for tests, and work out a schedule ahead of time for solo book time that’s agreeable for both of you.

Anatole Broyard, literary critic for The New York Times (and a fascinating man—Google® him sometime), wrote that “[r]eading a book is only the beginning, the first step in the relationship. After you’ve finished it, the book enters on its real career. It stands there as a badge, a blackmailer, a monument, a scar. It’s both a flaw in the room, like a crack in the plaster, and a decoration. The contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his [or her] history, like an ancestral portrait.”

I have many bookshelves filled with books, but there are several shelves in my bedroom and studio that hold my favorite books, the ones I return to again and again. L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) is there. Maxine Greene’s (1995) Releasing the Imagination is there. Several books by Alfie Kohn and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly are on the shelves. So are Twyla Tharpe’s (2003) The Creative Habit and Kenneth W. Thomas’s (2000) Intrinsic Motivation at Work. These shelves are stuffed with words that resonate with me, and that’s why A Perfect Mess is joining the ranks.

Do you need to cultivate reading interests or do you already have them? What does your bookshelf hold and what portrait does it paint of your interests?

Personality is partially an extension of the personal bibliography that every mature adult carries within. The books which we have read provide the most challenging windows into the precious privacy that remains as a steady and sustaining quiet, a centering identity, within all of us.
• Kevin Starr

* Thanks to Douglas Adams for the title quotation.



  1. The text I chose is “The Encyclpedia of Immaturity” Klutz, 2007. This book is sure to expand my creative forces. It is filled with ideas from crafts to writing and tricks to experiments. Labeling my paper lunch bag, which I do use, MOTION DISCOMFORT CONTAINER is sure to keep those pesky custodians out of my lunch once and for all. I recommend this book to teachers who want to know the tricks students may be plotting against them; its better to be prepared.

  2. My book is; 101 Great Classroom Games, Easy Ways to get Your Students Playing, Laughing, and Learning.
    By Alexis Ludewig and amy Swan, Ph.D

    I love the variety of games this book offers for all content areas, with listed age, skill, noise and activity level. There is liittle prep required and most items needed for the games you wiil have in your classroom.

  3. I read the book “A Kick in the Seat of the Pants.” I love the title! My favorite quote from the book (page 96) is “You see, from the time a person is six years old until he graduates from college he has to take three or four examinations a year. If he flunks once, he is out. But an inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once his is in. These two things are diametrically opposite.” We need to allow ourselves (and students) to fail….sometimes it’s how the best learning takes place.

  4. I chose the book “365 TV Free Activities”, which has an absolutelly enormous array of ideas and activities, everything from cutting off a carrot top and growing it, to making your own placemats, or how to hollow out eggs and paint them. Definitely worth the $6.95 investment.

  5. My book is Creative Breakthroughs: Tap the Power of the Unconscious Mind by Jill Morris Ph.D. This book caught my attention with all the seemingly silly activities that are supposed to “unleash” your creativity. Examples of exercises that will help you become more creative are Play with your favorite childhood toy, listen to different kinds of music and write or draw images that come to mind, fantasize something you want right now and make it come true creatively. I haven’t tried any yet but they do sound interesting.

  6. The book I chose is “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?” If you skip to page 78 (Chapter 4), that’s where most of the useful puzzle questions begin, such as “You have a bucket of jelly beans in three colors – red, green, and blue. With your eyes closed, you have to reach in the bucket and take out two jelly beans of the same color. How many jelly beans do you have to take to be (absolutely) certain of getting two the same color?” Now, stop and take the time to think it over. This would be a great question to ask students, and then have them close their eyes and take out the number of jelly beans they think they need in order solve the riddle. The answer section of the book starts on page 147, and the reasoning behind the answer is often the answer. Think you know how many it takes? The answer is 4 jelly beans. Pick out just 3 jelly beans, and there is still a chance you might have 1 of each color. You must take 4 jelly beans to be absolutely certain that you have 2 of the same color.

  7. Bibliographic Information: Von Oech, Roger. Expect the Unexpected Or You Won’t Find It; A creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus. San Francisco; Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2002.

    A Rational: Really, the reason I choose this book was for the title. I went into the library looking for another book by Von Oech, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants. As I was looking at call numbers I found this book written by the same author and liked the title, Expect the Unexpected or you Won’t Find It. Isn’t this statement pretty much true of our everyday life? Some of us can become so uptight when things don’t go the way we had intended. As teachers the unexpected seems to come in so many different forms, from the student walking in, to the lesson plans we had written, principals, district office and even other teachers in our buildings. This book does a nice job “creating” a different light on situations and seeing the best in what we have.

    Share a favorite quote:

    “You give us ideas but don’t reveal their meaning.” To which I can imagine Heraclitus’ reply: “How would you like it if someone offered you a juicy apple and chewed it up before giving it to you?” (9) Discovery comes from within, you must experience it to understand it.

  8. My tried and true inspirational “teacher” book is still Harry & Rosemary T. Wong’s “How to be an Effective Teacher, The First Days of School”.

    I re-read this book before the school year starts and parts of it I read again before Christmas and Spring break. It helps me to feel and be prepared so I can let my mind wander in other creative areas.

    Some of my favorite things in this book:
    “Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are right.” Henry Ford
    (pg 39)
    I really like the section about consistency and how the classroom teacher was gone and had arranged for a sub that didn’t show. When the principal stopped in to see how the day was going the students were working away because of how well organized and consistent the teacher was even when he wasn’t there.
    (pg 192)

    The part about seating assignments is very helpful for me because this is something I worry about all the time 🙂
    (pgs. 116-119)

    I would recommend this book for every teacher on the planet! Especially first year/newer teachers. This is a book that will not just sit on your shelf and collect dust.

  9. The book that I read for my Oregon Writing Project class was called “Invitations” by Regie Routman. I would recommend this book to any teacher. It is a sort of teacher “bible”. It is a huge book (500 pages) that is filled with great information. A few of the sections that I really enjoyed discussed the pros/cons of ability grouped classrooms, staff development and personal journal writing. This book covers k-12 across the curriculum. on page 4, Regie Routman states that “whole language is about all learners feeling whole and able and part of a community of learners…” This is a great book for all teachers to own.

  10. The story that I read was called “A Whack on the Side of the Head”, by Roger von Oech. I choose this book because the title sounded fun. After reading some customer reviews on Amazon, I knew this was going to be a great book. I hoped that it would help to inspire my creativity in both my classroom and my life.
    On page 19, Roger writes a simple yet profound paragraph:
    Do you have creative power?
    Well, if you’ve ever used a pen as a weapon, or a potato as a radio antenna, or a T-shirt as a tourniquet, or dried leaves as toliet paper, or a telephone book as a booster seat, then the answer is a resounding “Yes!” I love this paragraph because it showed me that i have creative power. On page 23, Roger states the ten mental locks to creativity. Number ten is “I’m not Creative”. In this section he talks about self-fulfilling prophecies. If a person believes something to be true and acts on this belief then the actions will cause the belief to come true. I completely agree with this.
    On page 66, Roger talks about how metaphors are one of his passions. Here is one that i loved: “Life is like riding an elevator. It has lots of ups and downs and someone is always pushing your buttons. Sometimes you get the shaft, but what really bothers you are the jerks.”
    I would recommend this book to any person around middle school age or older. This book is an easy read and appeals to all audiences. I enjoyed the brain games that he included throughout the book. At the end of each chapter, there is also a great summary of tips. I am so glad that I discovered this book!
    One of my favorite quotations from this book is on page 19. Roger states, “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”

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