The Divinity (a.k.a. Victoria Will) will soon be seven, which philosophers call the age of reason. Fat lot philosophers know about young girls. I have shared a small desk with one for several years and now am sharing a huge desk, and she and I are wrestling with the intellectual problem of desktop tidiness.
For the Prodigy (a.k.a. the Divinity) and me this is a problem, because some afternoons after school we now sit across from each other at an old (new to me) ''partners desk,'' one of those enormous constructions with drawers on each side. The top, on which an F-15 could land, can hold a lot of clutter.
Father favors tidiness. Daughter finds clutter congenial. And it turns out she is correct: Science proves that it is rational to have a messy desk.
In Discover magazine Hugh Kenner, professor of English at Johns Hopkins and a confirmed advocate of chaos, last year wrote a spirited defense of the messy desk. Kenner considers tidiness not only evidence of an unattractive character (''clean-deskers measure their vermouth with an eyedropper, walk their dogs by the clock, succor their spouses by the calendar''), but also a practice invalidated by the 80-20 rule, a.k.a. Zipf's Law.
Kenner says: Consider my desk. I take a reference book from a shelf and, knowing I will refer to it again soon, I leave it on my desk for now. And this letter inviting me to a conference. I'll leave it next to the book for now because I'll be referring to it when I make travel arrangements. These notes for the essay I'm writing -- I turn to them frequently so I'll leave them here for now. The ''for nows'' accumulate and so does the stuff.
For Kenner, a messy desk is a matter of principle, not sloth. The principle is: What you need now you're apt to need again, and again. That is why the paring knife is left on the kitchen counter and the nutmeg grater is not.
The principle pops up all over the place, as in our use of words. Kenner says we make more than 50 percent of our normal talk by recycling about 100 words. Feel inarticulate? Cheer up.
Shakespeare's works contain 29,066 different words, but 40 words make up 40 percent of the texts of his plays. James Joyce's ''Ulysses'' contains about the same number of different words -- 29,899 -- but just 135 words (''the,'' ''of,'' ''and,'' ''to,'' etc.) make up half the text. Such words are the utility infielders of discourse. We keep them handy on our desktops, so to speak. They illustrate this principle: Most of every activity uses only a small fraction of available resources.
The common words are like paring knives: They perform many functions. The rarely used words (Kenner's example: ''colubriform,'' meaning snake-shaped) can be defined in a few lines. But in the large Oxford English Dictionary, an all-purpose word like ''set'' (get set to set the table with the dining set, then set the alarm so we can set out . . . etc.) requires an OED entry two-thirds the length of ''Paradise Lost.''
Like the clutter on a cluttered desk, such words are the ones we reach for frequently. The clutter on our desks is the stuff we strew there in accordance with (whether we know it or not) ''the principle of least effort.''
That was expounded in 1950 by George Zipf, a Harvard philologist who became the ideologist of clutter. He established the rationality of the messy desk with this law: Frequency of use draws near to us the things that are frequently used, so some messes accumulate for good reasons.
Kenner says that intelligent secretaries have long known that files in heavy use should not be re-filed -- that 80 percent of the action involves 20 percent of the files. But the 80-20 rule actually inconveniences clutterologists such as Kenner because, as noted in the 1963 ''IBM Systems Journal,'' the 80-20 rule applies, in turn, to the active 20 percent.
That is, if you keep 1,000 files, of which 200 bear most duty, then 20 percent of the 200 -- just 40 files -- get most of the use, as do eight of those 40, and two of those eight. Two files make for a tidy desk.
Victoria gets her way because her father thinks she is perfect in every way and is becoming more so day by day. Unfortunately, Victoria consents only to one application of the 80-20 rule to her 175,000 Crayolas, stencils and other instruments of the serious business of being seven.