Parkinson’s Law and the bookshelf equation


“To the very young, to school teachers and also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place…To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous.” pvii.
So begins one of my favourite passages of the 1962 volume Parkinson’s Law. Witty and satirical it postulates formulas that represent the feeble realities of politics, organisations and employment cultures. Parkinson’s scenarios are as relatable today as they must have been when first appearing in publications from The Economist, Harper’s Magazine and The Reporter, seventy odd years ago.
I laughed out loud as his essays transported to my mind memories of my time as an activist pursuing student government and pushing national policy. Oh the determination of the young!
With amusing accuracy Parkinsons describes many typical realities of meetings, committees and politics. It entertained me as a former student of politics and an enthusiastic enforcer of Robert’s rules of order.
The primary detractor of this work is simply that it is so enduringly old. This becomes painfully obvious in his examples, which he uses well and seamlessly to facilitate his arguments while making ludicrous -although he assures us, mathematically accurate, (perhaps genius) formulas that include intrinsic elements of necessary consideration such as the blood pressure of the three oldest members of a board shortly prior to a meeting (although I did note that he failed to quantify the exact time prior to the meeting this should be measured, and thus I feel a particular lack without due consideration of this algorithm. I mean, was it immediately at the door prior to entering the meeting room, after reading the re-revised agenda and were refreshments served. I always find a meeting begins with much less pressure if everyone is in possession of a tea cup (regardless if one partakes of tea or not). But I digress, my intended point was that Parkinson’s treatise shows its age by examples such as comparisons between the British pound Sterling and the Australian pound- a currency that was out of circulation before my birth (a quick google reveals Australia went to dollars in 1966, almost a decade and a half before I was born- As a side note, I yesterday read you shouldn’t put a date on anything on your resume older than 15 years so as not to age yourself.) .
Also falling shorter than I expect it did at the time of publication, was the chapter on cocktail parties. Apparently, prior to the sixties civil servants would wear black suits to these functions, while all others would wear white suits. (to his credit, Parkinson did provide the reader with a helpful reminder of the history of the custom) Clearly this account would need reexamining for our time, altho I am convinced that the findings of this particular chapter still remain accurate today regardless of the particular attire of the formerly suited gentleman, or indeed lady (if we can set aside any debate regarding the gender and feminist can of worms either of those labels may threaten to open). Although, possibly my favourite chapter, unfortunately, dear reader I am forbidden by ethical considerations to disclose the specific information revealed therewith, In Parkinson’s own words, “Students will realise that the validity of this rule depend upon its not being generally known. The contents of this chapter should therefore be treated as confidential and kept strictly under lock and key… members of the general public are not on any account to read it.” (which conveniently relieves me of the tedious duty of a summary based book report- that I am afraid I just don’t find motivates me to the pen- or keyboard either to be frank.)
Without regard to the distraction of googling (obscure at least to my younger mind) 1960’s common knowledge, this was a quick and amusing read (113 pages with cartoon illustrations by Robert C. Osborne).
With all the unfortunately inapplicable genius foruma’s in this book I was confronted with my own particular problem that some of you might relate- that of book storage. I am at a considerable disadvantage in the mathematics department to successfully construct the appropriate formula to solve the equation for how to decide what to do with a book once one has finished reading it. Last week I pondered outloud (which tends to lend officiality and purpose to these kinds of matters- and an uncomfortable nagging feeling that one should possibly do something- primarily though self imposed guilt) that this reading challenge would be a wonderful opportunity for me to reexamine the place of books on my bookshelf. An unread book, that one has chosen themselves, or has been given as a gift (which is possibly worse), holds value because of its potential for reading- giving merit to the space it takes up both in linear centimeters (which can easily be demonstrated on a ruler to American’s not familiar with the metric system and ounces -because I can’t fathom how to explain weight conversions without doing my head in, even I know when something is a losing battle). On the other hand, a book that one has read quickly becomes a dilemma, The act of disclosing the contents of a book should in theory relieve one of the need or desire to keep it. Yet, as we know this is not necessarily true unless it is simply awful or a textbook for a mandatory but thoroughly boring class you thankfully passed.
My packed and straining bookcases would welcome a reprieve of a volume or two.
However, secretly, I suspect if I let this volume go, I will find every reason to call it back to my mind and regret that I had ever allowed it to depart my possession. Thus I am left with only two proactive courses of action. 1. Embark on an experiment in utility to see if I can apply this book as widely as my book hoarding Smeagle mind is loudly attempting to argue is the best course of action or 2. donate it as fast as humanly possible to the first available book depository, bus shelter or university office bookshelf (that through the principles of academic laws of physics acquire outdated and enduringly interesting books such as this as a matter of nature). Being a thinker more than a doer, the obvious outcome is going to be to do nothing until this book migrates itself back onto my bookshelf at some point after the end of the spring reading session, when, most probably, I have a sudden fit of urgency to clean up my apartment (possibly because visitors will be arriving any minute).
Wing diamond.

4 comments on “Parkinson’s Law and the bookshelf equation”

  1. Two comments: my dearest friend, who is also the executive director of a non-profit, hands everyone who comes through her door a cup of tea before asking them for money. She swears by the “holding a cup of tea” theory. Also, my habit of frequently moving keeps my book library down to a bare minimum, but admittedly, every time I go to someone’s house and see an overflowing bookshelf I’m immediatly jealous. The book paradox is forever a double-edged sword.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for this engaging report on ‘Parkinson’s Law and the bookshelf equation.” I appreciate your bringing out the issue of books becoming, in some respects, outdated, What is their highest and best use? I had not ever thought of the shelves of a university office. How does the public library decide what to keep when books are donated? The library, too, has only so much space. I do know that x number of books wind up in their used book sales, and that’s fine with me. Any source of revenue for the library system is a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I do too. I bought a gorgeous exhibition catalogue for ‘Matisse: painter as sculptor,’ still wrapped in plastic, from Yale University Press which was on the sale shelves at my branch library.

        Liked by 1 person

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