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Offbeat 05 February 2016

Files. I have some in my house, and I even know what papers are in some of them. My wife writes on the back of them, so I don’t get confused. My own personal filing system consists of Pile A, Pile B and The Other Pile. And there’s normally a small but complex pile in a drawer somewhere.
I’m not good at filing. It’s one of those ‘mental block’ things, like being able to remember the precise events that led to me being kicked out of kindergarten or being able to draw the shape of a mountain from the contour curves on a map.
But surprisingly, my filing system works. Two days ago, I was able to remember that the dog’s vaccination papers were in The Other Pile, which now lives on top of the row of books on the right side of my desk.
You get people with a natural propensity for filing. They put everything in the correct place, and try to keep it there with the same sort of passion and satisfaction of an elderly spinster arranging her collection of porcelain dogs in a two by two grid of size and pinkish hue. I suspect they were the sort of children who packed away their Lego according to the colour and the size of the blocks.
I also suspect that many of them are the sort of people who file ‘whales’ under ‘fishes’, guiltily suppressing the knowledge that whales don’t have gills, and trying to ignore the fact that they suckle their young. I wonder where they put ‘flying fishes’, and if they lie awake tormented at night, wrestling with the question of whether a bird can have scales?
The philosophical problem I have with filing is that the system is never absolute. It is easy enough to arrange bills by date, but what if they are needed by size? Should the filing system be revised temporarily, which means resorting them after they have done their job by standing in line from biggest to smallest? Should they remain resorted until they are needed by date? Or should all the bits of paper be duplicated so they can be filed according to both systems?
It seems like an awful waste of time, when I could be doing something important like looking for my missing glasses, reading to my daughter or trying to change the world again.
Filing systems have a terrifyingly fixed nature. Once an item is ‘filed’, it takes on the aspect of the category under which it belongs. An electricity bill becomes just an electricity bill. It loses the connotation of being, for instance, a ‘big bill’ which needs to be dealt with by turning off more lights in future, or the connotation of being an ‘unpaid bill’ until the gentleman comes to the gate telling you he is going to turn off the electricity unless you get the payment sorted ‘like yesterday’.
Filing systems also have a way of getting things horribly wrong with upsetting results for everyone. A childhood friend was filed under ‘dark-skinned local’, a fact that he didn’t really bother with until he was found using a toilet with ‘European’ written on the door. He showed his Scandinavian passport to the officer, which is probably why he was spared the traditional beating, but like the questions of the whales and the flying fish it goes to show just how very dangerous a filing system can become.
The genocides that took place in the course of World War Two were monstrous, but the revelation of the vast yet orderly documentation system that filed people into the categories of ‘Jew’, ‘Gypsy’, ‘Gay’, ‘Disabled’ and ‘Dissenter’, then resorted each of these elements into the consecutive categories of concentration camps and graves, was so mundanely evil that it defies comprehension.
Filing systems are unnatural. All living systems are complex, and grow and evolve. Filing systems are the diametric opposite. They seek control through limitation by application of the most narrow and static definition.
There’s a possible reason for my ‘mental block’. I know I am tardy and lax as far as my filing is concerned. But for now I am comfortable with my piles. If you are a filing junky, liberate yourself. File ‘flying fishes’ under ‘B for birds’.
Just remember where they are for future reference.

About The Author


Today the Typesetter is a position at a newspaper that is mostly outdated since lead typesetting disappeared about fifty years ago. It is however a convenient term to indicate a person that is responsible for the technical refinement of publishing including web publishing. The Typesetter does not contribute to editorial content but makes sure that all elements are where they belong. - Ed.