A Classifying Animal
By Tiernan Henry

Man, apparently, is a classifying animal. All the experts say so: geneticist Steve Jones, cultural commentator Michael Foucault, and Arsenal fan Nick Hornby, among others.

Indeed, Jones, in his best-selling Almost Like A Whale, explains that this isn't a new phenomenon. The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, a tenth century Chinese encyclopaedia, classified plants and animals as follows:

(a) Those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush; (l) others; (m) those that have just broken a flower vase; and (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

Jones, with great understatement, says that this scheme is hard to comprehend today.

He obviously never met my father.

Now, there was a man whose classification scheme for things in the house defied any logic.

He gave us many things, my dad. He shared many things with us, but never why he put certain things in certain places. "Why can't anyone put anything in its proper place in this house?" we'd hear him ask the dog. The dog kept mum. My mum, well, she offered it up.

There was never any clutter in the house, nothing out of place. Of course, it meant that you could never find anything, unless dad was there. Testily, he'd tell you that the bottle opener was in that drawer, along with the fuses, cassette boxes, soap and newspaper clippings. Obviously.

Even after I had examined the blue prints of the house I was convinced that there was another set somewhere, maybe in a bank vault somewhere (though that would have been an alarmingly linear location for my dad) that gave details of the proper place for everything in a house.

He really was the original Mr. Neat. And Mr. Tidy.

Like father, like son. My classification weakness is our CD collection. And yes, I should point out that I've read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.

We have a lot of CDs. And albums. Although the albums are mostly in the attic (and in my sister's house, my mother's attic, and in an office in Galway), the CDs are slowly filling the house.

Having spent the mid-80s stating, like a true radical, that I'd never alphabetise my CDs, by the start of the '90s I of course did. Alphabetised first, then arranged chronologically. This worked for a while, but statis is not good.

For a spell then I tried going chronologically first, then alphabetically. This was followed by a disastrous attempt at doing chronological, then best albums of a year.

It's time for another shake up.

Cladistics is the key.

Though it sounds like some sort of self-help programme (not available in the shops, send $29.99 no obligations) subscribed to by washed-up B-list Hollywood actors, it actually is a science.

And at least one that is easy to explain: groups that share traits not present in others must descend from a common ancestor.

In theory I should be able to group the CDs into a scheme that can be understood and comprehensible to everyone. Or to every other sad sap, according to my wife.

Simple enough. And it resolves at least one family row. My sister's husband can be grouped with humans after all. He's a Leeds fan. Enough said.

The application might not be so easy when it comes to music though. Maybe an Excel spreadsheet or two might be employed to keep tabs on the links.

Some are relatively straightforward: Beach Boys leads to the High Llamas, then Stereolab, lob in Air, then Wondermints.

But where do Microdisney fit in?

Maybe I'll employ some cross-referencing system based on late 60s jingly-jangly guitar bands with a soft spot for musical geniuses in sand-boxes. Telecasters in this lot, Rickenbackers in that lot. It'll make for interesting bedfellows.

Madonna will be in beside Joe Henry. The Who will be beside Dan Lanois and the Jayhawks. These will intercept other lines featuring U2, Peter Gabriel, and old uncle Bob Dylan. (The links: Joe Henry is married to Madonna's sister. Madonna's sister manages Dan Lanois. Lanois has worked on some Joe Henry albums. As have the Jayhawks. Lanois produced U2, Gabriel and uncle Bob. Joe Henry appeared in a recent episode of Dharma & Greg playing guitar in a band with Bob.) Then it can cross over with Teenage Fanclub (a whole sub-genre right there: Scottish power pop bands; with a link to their Irish brethren featuring Stars of Heaven, Something Happens, Revelino, the Revenants and the Blades), Counting Crows (the San Francisco-based angsta rap outfit), Chic, British prog rock of the 70s, German electronica–oh dear.

This may take some time.

And maybe some sort of 3-D mapping programme. Maybe I could hire Elvis Costello as a consultant; allegedly he owns a copy of every record ever made anywhere. Give or take a reissue or two. He's bound to be able to handle all this interconnectedness.

My dad, and the dog, would have dealt with it no problem.

My wife thinks it's easy. "Crap and the good stuff," is her clinical assessment.

Man, not woman, is the classifying animal.