In Defense of Categories

A plan to make book selection easier, for me

In Defense of Categories

In just under two months, I will start reading the first of my fifty book selections. I wish I knew what those selections were going to be. I have a spreadsheet with nearly 1,600 candidate books, and no sound method by which to narrow the choices. The spreadsheet itself is larger than some short stories, and contains no discernible plot.

How is it possible that there are 1,600 important books in the world? When I started this project, I was thinking that there might be 200, perhaps 250 tops. I compiled the candidate list from various experts of great books, including the aptly named Great Books series. This set was compiled by Mortimer J. Adler, the late editor of The Encyclopedia Britannica, which is definitely not on my list. Adler said, “The truly great books are the few books that are over everybody’s head all of the time.” Apparently, Adler’s definition of “few” means “54 thick volumes.” But what do you expect from a guy who crafts encyclopedias for a living?

So the problem lies with encyclopedia-readers with too much time on their hands. But what of the solution? The thing to do is to first determine the various categories of content, and group all of the books within those sets: history, philosophy, general fiction, science, biography, and so on. Once I have those broad groupings, I can begin to limit the number of book choices in each set. This assumes that I actually know the category for every book, which I don’t. One of my friends suggested that I read a chapter from each of the 1,600 books to determine which category it falls into. His condemnation is deserved.

Melvil Dewey, of Dewey Decimal System fame, faced just such a problem. His solution was to arrange all books into increasingly-specific numerical buckets, and place all volumes in order by those same numbers. It met with some reasonable success. But it destroyed Dewey, as is evidenced by his dying words: “428.2 OCO.”

Still, some books are easy to place into cubbyholes: Politics by Aristotle comes to mind, as does The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. But what about Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury? To someone unfamiliar with its contents, the title might suggest a scientific target. And don’t get me started on Eat, Pray, Love.

To help alleviate some of this confusion and make my life so much easier, I propose to all authors and publishers that books henceforth include its category within the title. How about A Fictional Love Story of Vampires at Twilight, or The Animal Farm and It’s Allegorical Description of Totalitarian Nations, or even The Biography of Mr. Harry Potter, a Wizard: Volume 7. Imagine the convenience, the clarity, the need for obscuring book covers that would come with such a change. Imagine getting such a system in place by July 1. Please.

[Image Credits: University of Washington]


  1. PS-
    : )


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