A desk of one’s own

Image credit: thegraphicsfairy.com

We are full of contradictions, are we not? Diligent one moment, listless the next; viewing life with equanimity yesterday, choleric today; thinking seven impossible things before breakfast but still insisting there is only one right way to boil an egg.

I’m a contrary type. To give just one example among many, the one which is the topic for this post: I’m normally a fairly tidy person — everything in its place — meaning I delight in uncluttered rooms, streets free of litter, political positions clearly stated. Dust and debris and detritus offend me; I’m pernickety about recycling in the correct containers; chaotic emotions confuse me.

That’s all well and good … until it comes to books. More specifically the spaces where books accumulate when they’re being used, such as desks and bedside tables. And then the contrariness kicks in, and tidiness goes metaphorically out the window.

Regard the photo of my desk space. Notice the books piled willy-nilly. Ponder the paper on Brontë juvenilia propped upon a pillar of reading matter. Marvel at the Latin dictionary which instead of being bookmarked is opened tent-like, against all propriety. See the pocket diary from 2014 lying there because at some point I consulted it for who knows what purpose. Marvel at the mousemat so bookladen that I can scarcely manipulate the mouse.

It’s the same on my bedside table. I have bookmarks inserted in some books published in the 1920s — E F Benson, Virginia Woolf, James Branch Cabell — as I flit from one to the other however the whim takes me; they sit on top of a Chinese memoir, a Jane Austen study, Moby-Dick, and a couple or more other tomes I’ve started but stalled on.

Flibbertigibbert, that’s me. But you’ll have noticed method in my madness because I’ve mentioned this trait before in previous posts. Books to me are depositories of ideas, and shifting from book to books feeds these ideas into the maelström that is my mind, throwing up disparate ideas from its maw to settle on the shingle of my perception. (Sorry about this rich diet of mixed metaphors.)

Jasper Fforde has this simile about where writers’ ideas come from. He compares the writer’s mind to a spikey ball rolling around a litter of written notes randomly picking up quotes, metaphors and concepts. If one is single-minded about reading or researching, eschewing anything unrelated to the subject in hand, it’s comparable to a ball with one long spike — it’s not going to pick up anything unexpected, indeed it may be so inefficient as to not pick up anything at all. Fforde’s fiction is the epitome of eclectic: contrasting ideas are joined in matrimony, homophones become one and the same notion, chaos gives birth to logic, metaphors become reality.

This is how dreams work. Many are the thinkers and scientists who have come up with a novel insight from the seeming irrationality of a dream image: these are the ‘guessers’, as opposed to the ‘accumulators’; the latter study clods of earth, the former behold the heavens. As Einstein is quoted as saying or writing,

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

We have in fact forgotten the etymological root of the word invention: it comes from the Latin invenire, literally ‘to come upon’ — the idea as it were preexists, it just needs the dreamer to stumble across it. Alternatively, intuition is a spark between two points, and it requires the ‘inventor’ to express the fleeting flash in words or turn it into an object.

So this is how I justify my untidy desk space, or my bedside table topped with teetering titles: by hopping from book to book I contemplate ideas remote in subject brought together in temporal contiguity, and collect unrelated concepts on the spikes of the rolling sphere of my reading. Even publications from the same period in time, chosen to fit in with the 1920s theme of Jazz Age June, chatter to each other despite their differing viewpoints: what a conversation arises from Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), E F Benson’s comedy of manners Queen Lucia (1920) and James Branch Cabell’s fantasy Figures of Earth (1921)! What new vistas will I stumble upon, or new inventions discover, or new intuitions illuminate my consciousness!

Do you too embark on a similar whirlwind literary tour, collecting souvenir labels and sticking them on a virtual suitcase wherever they will go?

33 thoughts on “A desk of one’s own

  1. I love the way you put this: “by hopping from book to book I contemplate ideas remote in subject brought together in temporal contiguity, and collect unrelated concepts on the spikes of the rolling sphere of my reading.”

    Absolutely I do that. My desk has similar piles of books and papers (liberally sprinkled with rocks and shells as paperweights so the cats don’t get as many muddy pawprints all over the papers and a breeze from an open window doesn’t scatter them).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our cat, sadly, is no more, but she wasn’t allowed upstairs anyway so the desk space would’ve been spared pawprints! But it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who thinks and functions this way, Jeanne, and happy my words struck chords with you. 😊

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  2. My desk is a clutter of scribbled-on papers and mad plans. My books are tidy. What can this mean? I have tried the ‘Spiky Ball’ thing, but I can’t seem to retrieve anything without putting my back out. Research is seldom a problem for me – it takes effort so, largely I don’t do it. I fill my time attempting to contend with an incontinent mind… A beautifully written post. No more than I have learned to expect 🙂

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    1. 1. Scribbled papers + tidy books = early senility + existentialist reference library.
      2. You’re should send a dog for the spiky ball, not fetch it yourself, no wonder you need a chiropractor.
      3. Pointless doing research, especially quantum physics, because … entropy. The rest is silence, as a Danish Prince said.

      But thank you, slight minds think alike! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

          1. Well this one is 🙂 Actually I am an experimental physicist and I am entertained by the thought that people are posting comments here using the results from the fundamental insights of quantum mechanics, which led ultimately to the development of the transistor, IC and the VLSI chips in our computers.

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            1. Ironic, isn’t it?! 😁 You’ll have guessed that Colin and I tend to adopt different persons — caustic, self-deprecating, crass — to make our points (if indeed points there are) and that in real life I’m in total awe of all physicists, experimental or otherwise, and what they’ve accomplished and the philosophical conundrums they’ve presented to gibbering lay-persons like me.

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  3. What a reassuring read! I honestly never had you down as a ‘flibbertigibbet’ Chris and now feel much happier about my own grasshopper mind. As a librarian I loved order in books and research but increasingly I find that when reading I am reminded of another book or article and go off in search either through the shelves or the internet. The interconnection of ideas in stories fascinates me and I love learning more. Thank you for another lovely, thought provoking post.

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    1. I wonder sometimes if that flibbertigibertness has been exacerbated by the age we live in, Anne, the age of breaking news and social media and on-demand TV that you can pause and come back to. I tend to do most of my serious reading in bed, away from virtual distractions, so that untidy desk is down to me rummaging through tomes for half-remembered quotes and references to include in my next wittery post. Exactly your own modus operandi!

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      1. This is a theme of a book I read a few years ago about the effect the internet has in our brains, it encourages us to go hopping from one site to another. Collecting snippets of info that we then don’t retain as well.

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        1. Good point, Karen: I think internet hopping can be bad unless one notes key links and references (search engines can be helpful with prompts taking you to what you searched for previously, but can’t be relied on). I’m rubbish at virtual bookmarking, preferring to use pen and paper, so that’s another reason why I prefer reading physical books.

          We all have different ways of perceiving things, so while I’m poor at pelmanism I tend to retain how far through a book I read something and usually remember roughly where on a double page spread to look for a particular quote.

          I’m not a huge details person accessing facts and figures from mental pigeonholes, tending to look for the bigger picture based on multiple impressions: the image matters more than individual pixels, as it were. (Hope this rambling monologue makes sense!)

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        2. Hmm, plausible but (speaking completely from personal experience) I used to do that with reference books/journals etc. too. I was just (and still am) fascinated by many things and could certainly find myself getting sidetracked. Having the WWW clearly makes such things easier but I think it is an attitude of mind that has perhaps become more readily visible? Did the book you refer to, BookerTalk, provide any convincing evidence for the hypothesis (i.e. a genuine cerebral effect). Perhaps you might let me know what the book was, it sounds interesting.

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          1. You’re probably correct about access to the web making the gadding about more obvious, as anyone with access to a library — personal or public — doubtless did the same before the rise of online browsing (I know I did).

            I’ll leave Karen to reply to your query about the book she refers to.

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    1. Thank you for your approbation, Ola — assuming you mean what you say in terms of nodding admiration! Wasn’t it Sherlock Holmes who said he had no need of books apart from a Bradshaw’s railway guide as he had access to public libraries? With UK libraries shut in lockdown I’m — finally — glad I’ve accumulated so many books over a lifetime! 🙂

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      1. Of course it was approbation skewed toward admiration, what else could it be, Chris? 😄

        I take full advantage of the local library system, and I can even claim with rather astonished pride that I haven’t bought a single book for over a year! But having the libraries’ treasures beyond my reach would at once make me a very inconsolable and grumpy person, so not only am I sending you my condolences, but also the heartfelt expression of my happiness for your wonderful collection! 😁

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  4. When I studied my MA I had a tutor who SCORNED all forms of order as entirely detrimental to creativity. He could never lay his hand on anything – not a book or a paper – without extensive searching, but he insisted that on the way to find something he was often distracted by something unrelated – or something related but unexpected and better – and this was enriching in every possible way. He was, in fact, brilliant. So there you are – further support for your theory. 🙂

    I have to say, I am just horrifically messy but I like to think I am at least inviting ideas and exciting juxtapositions even if I haven’t yet profited from them.

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    1. Your tutor sounds to have developed a philosophy that not only appeals but works! I feel that my random reading is a bit like those random words or acts (of kindness? hopefully) that ex-pupils whom I’ve taught remember me for but which I’ve no memory of.

      Just as you have no real control over exactly how people regard you I feel I have little control over the random things I read or have read — all those notes I took in lectures rang no bells with me immediately after graduating but a fleeting look, gesture, word or image from long ago may suddenly suggest itself in a creative context in the present, and prove to be absolutely relevant.

      Anyway, there’s little prospect of me changing the habits of a lifetime so Marie Kondo will have to regard me as a lost cause… 😁

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    1. Thanks, Annabel, I hoped it would strike a chord with a few bloggers — and it has! In a time of isolation and lockdown books are like loyal friends sticking by us whatever the world throws at us. Anyway, that’s how it feels to me. 🙂

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  5. I have a completely empty desk at work and similarly at home (other than the paraphernalia of keyboard, mouse screen. I believe that what I do (as a scientist) is regarded as creative and I do not feel that having to spend 15 minutes searching for something helps me in anyway at all. The real advantage of ensuring the desk is completely clear when you stop working in the evening is at the start of the next day when it really feels fresh like grass after night dew and if that isn’t a spur to creativity then I don’t know what is. 🙂

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    1. Well that’s really interesting and refreshing to have a contrary modus operandi championed. I suppose one can see in our contrasting approaches the difference between, say, a lab scientist or chef where it’s important to have a sterile or antiseptic environment and maybe a gardener where the environment can be mucky and even chaotic: different kinds of requirements for different kinds of results. The analogies aren’t perfect of course but the creativity that comes out of both working practices seem equally valid even if at opposite ends of the spectrum.

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      1. Glad you found it interesting. Actually my desk used to be (and very many scientists’ desks certainly are) much like yours. I read in a time management book about the “clear desk” approach and thought it was nonsense. For some reason many months later I wondered one day if it might be worth a go and I have never since wanted to revert!

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        1. I’m retired and so have no schedule to keep to — well, none except any self-imposed one, which I can disregard if I choose — but when I was a classroom teacher chaos wasn’t really an option for my desk or stockroom; but it did at times feel like a losing battle between necessary discipline and natural inclination! 🙂

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  6. piotrek

    I like the sight of that, on your photos, but I couldn’t have this on my desk… I need to have it clean, maybe one carefully arranged stack of books, and an orderly set of notes… I might have slight OCD tendencies (only slight though, I have a friend who is a real case, and I have it easy in comparison).

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    1. If it’s any consolation I usually can’t manage this level of chaos for long, and tidy up before books and papers start falling off the edge (occasionally even after they fall off the edge). But I can’t manage the thought of wasted effort if after putting a book away on a shelf in another room I have to search it out again because of a need to refer to it another time… Is there a term of a combination of listlessness and procrastination? Oh yes … laziness. 😁

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  7. I love these seemingly random posts of yours, Chris; there is ample evidence here on your blog of the benefits of your flibbertigibbert approach 😊 Of course, you have made me consider my own habits and I realise that the older I’ve become, the more I need physical order. Too much stuff around the laptop, too many books on a pile = confusion and fatigue. But my inner flibbertigibbert is still alive and kicking, running through the outward semblance of order and knocking this pile into that one, mixing this idea with that theme….
    😀

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    1. Hah! It may interest you to know I don’t work at my laptop much, Sandra, only when I have stuff to print off or am banished here after the better half wants to watch a programme she’s recorded… 😁

      But yes, we run a fairly tidy ship here otherwise we too would be even more confused and fatigued than recent events and situations warrant; it’s mainly energy levels that are leaking away as the weeks and the months drag on. Still, I’m glad your inner flibbertigibert is fully functioning and hasn’t been Marie Kondo’d out of existence!

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