It might do well to remember that all categorization – all understandings – are inevitably simplifications, attempts at deciphering what cannot be deciphered in a holistic way. Life is short; we cannot read everything; and so we select specific works, read them, to find our taste; and then, from there, we pick and choose what will define us. Once we reach a certain quantity of books, and/or a certain age, we determine what our taste is, and thereby eliminate whole categories of books from the competition of our interest. A new book by a known novelist appears, and we treat it as if it were the new Harry Potter. We know all about it. But it is perhaps interesting to realize that later Harry Potter books differed in substantial ways from their predecessors – even as direct sequels, as opposed to simply further examples from the same author. (In other words, there is an extension of continuity implied by a new Harry Potter book that does not automatically exist in looking at, say, Lolita, and Ada, or Ardor, from Vladimir Nabokov, although in fact the similarities between the latter books may be more apparent than in the former.)
And, of course, human beings do not cooperate with the categories to which we assign them – not even ourselves. The specimens in our personal petri dishes are too squirmy, too independent, for that. And still we do it. For this issue of mortality comes again, and we must be something. We must be liberal, or conservative, communist, atheist, fundamentalist; we must prefer Sontag to Paglia, or Cortazar to Amado, or bananas to spinach. So we deselect (and preselect) our interests and rely on the summaries of experts for the rest; summaries by people who are, by definition, alienated from us by their dedication to their own preoccupations – preoccupations that do not interest us enough to delve so deeply ourselves.
Of course, it isn’t just books. It’s everything. We always find ourselves immensely complex and others readily diagnosed; without this principle, not only psychotherapy but advice would cease to exist. This is the paradox of categorization, however necessary the process might be.
And for all that, we are ultimately reducible to a single category: that of stardust contemplating itself.
This is Joe Green's blog.