I believe in filing. I believe in the importance of detail, and in the importance of knowing where those details are kept.
I came to this belief many years ago, when I read Jimmy Breslin’s book on Watergate, How the Good Guys Finally Won. He profiled John Doar – a key figure in the prosecution of the Watergate crimes, for those of you too young to remember. John Doar had started his career as a Republican member of Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department, prosecuting civil rights crimes in the South. According to Breslin, Doar always told his staff, respect the files.
If it was good enough to John Doar, one of the heroes of the 60s and 70s, it was good enough for me.
This is not a popular view. Filing is boring, the last task anybody wants to undertake. Whenever I’ve started a new job, the first thing I always find is that files are a mess. But why bother to keep all that paper is you can’t organize it? Why not just light a match and step back?
I love the sense of accomplishment filing gives me. Putting each paper in its proper place, so that it can be retrieved instantly, is a joy. The sense of pride I feel when people ask, where’s that letter about the whatchamacallit, and just seconds later I produce it – often to their amazement – cannot be duplicated.
It’s great to think big thoughts. It’s wonderful to have large ideas. But those thoughts and ideas only come to fruition through details. And those details are in my files.
In a world too complex, too complicated, I can understand filing. Not that’s it’s so simple, of course. Just the alphabet? That’s what you think? Shows what you know. Filing is subtle. Say you have to start a file for City Council Revenue Generating Projects. Where does that go? Under City Council? Sure, but that will wind up being a very big file – the City Council gets involved in a lot of things. “Projects?” Revenue Generating Projects? Council comma City? After a week or two updating someone else’s files, I know more about how that person’s mind works than her – and it’s almost always a her – minister, psychiatrist or mother.
And I wonder about all of you, for whom filing is pedestrian. Oh, I know – those piles on your desk are really organized, you know where everything is. Sure you do. Are you so sure? Nothing ever gets lost? No telling detail, no key fact? You’re sure about that?
I’m sure about that. I know what’s in the files I keep, proudly, ferociously. The devil’s in the details. The devil’s in my files.
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