Whuffling Through the Social Sciences

IN THIS EPISODE: Shopsitter Andrew Whalen gets more than he bargained for while trying to impose a little order on life’s chaos….

Things got a little too real today when I tore apart the “-Ology” bookshelf and set out to rebuild it. This shelf contains folklore, sociology, anthropology, self-help, career advice and research best practices.

At first reorganizing was fun. In a confusing world it can be comforting to establish hierarchies and draw borders. This is the appeal of the low-stakes nerd debate. Does it matter if Kirk or Picard were the better starship captain? No, but it feels good to put things in order (this one always seemed easy to me: one survived the reign of Kodos the Executioner, has the middle name Tiberius, passed the Kobayashi Maru test, and defeated conqueror-of-all-Asia Khan Noonien Singh… the other is Picard).

But some chaos cannot be cornered, tagged and boxed. Some chaos can only be whuffled, which is the word I made up to describe the sensation and action of bottling various fogs. Or the word I thought I had made up until I typed it into a search engine and found it used to describe sniffling, gentle affection and thankless online forum moderation. If we’re going by my definition (not endorsed by the Internet) it’s a feeling that accompanies so much of what we try to set in place. And the more I stared down the “-Ology” shelf, the more I begin to think the whole world is made of whuffle.

Yes, whuffle is verb, adjective and noun. It’s very versatile.

Before the “-Ology” shelf this uncertainty seemed very abstract to me. It came up primarily when considering genre. Is it fantasy just because there are swords? Is it sci-fi just because there are spaceships? Read Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and get back to me. Welcome back. See what I mean? And that’s before we get into odd-balls like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, and Margaret Atwood. No wonder people just gave up and invented the term speculative fiction.

The “-Ology” shelf was supposed to be different. It represents entirely separate realms of human knowledge! It’s like a UN of social sciences, each field a tiny nation-state with its own territories and agendas.

But my distinct borders kept getting knocked down. What to do with Typetalk, which purports to be a study of the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, but has self-help cover language promising to aid in determining how you “live, love and work”? Things only blurred more from there. When is a study on families anthropology and when is it sociology? Are Coping with Difficult People and Coping with Difficult Bosses really so different that they should be three shelves apart, one in sociology, the other in career guidance? ARGH.

So I started fresh, with a new theory. I could arrange the shelf like a continuity. There was a spectrum at play, beginning with psychology: the individual opening up onto the family, expanding into the society, then reaching out to other societies and forms of governance before finally drilling back down into the individual stories each society treasures. Brain to Folklore, with all of human experience in between. Made total sense for like two seconds. But things just got worse. And by the end I had almost convinced myself that Life-Span Developmental Psychology and Normative Life Crises was interchangeable with Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads.

I look at the shelf now and see nothing but whuffle. No matter how hard we try (I’m looking at you, Dewey, with all your decimals) nothing exists entirely separate and apart. Categories are cool, but they are never definite. All things interlock and nothing is simple. But as maddening and confusing as that can get for the bookshelf organizer, it probably makes for a more interesting world.

The Perils of Alphabetizing

Shopsitter Andrew guest blogs today, ruminating on his first week amongst the bookstore shelves….

Bookstore shelves trend toward chaos. I’m not sure if people are to blame… or if it’s some law of physics. Like the weather, small changes in the system can lead to big distortions. Mix up a Mailer and a Mann and somehow you’re only hours away from Nora Roberts popping up in the Westerns.

On some level I had suspected this. But as I started tackling the shelves one by one, re-alphabetizing and stacking, the emotion I was surprised to feel again and again was guilt. My favorite British television personality, David Mitchell, has a joke about how he feels guilty when he doesn’t wear certain pairs of underwear as often as others. “Sorry blue striped, but you’re just too tight,” he’d sigh. Well, sorry Frank Herbert, you just won’t fit there.

I found myself amongst piles of sci-fi paperbacks, wracking my brains to keep from snubbing John Scalzi and to ensure justice was dealt to L. Ron Hubbard, who had held a prized eye-level slot before my gerrymandering. I probably wouldn’t have given as much thought, or poured as much heart, into such considerations if the actual living, breathing authors were sitting in front of me waiting for a seating assignment.

I had several triumphs and a number of failures. I relegated L. Ron’s pulp-schmaltz to a dark corner. But in doing so I had to shift Heinlein and the entire Dune series into equally unfavorable light. All of Asimov is together in a prime display area, but it meant pushing Pierre Boulle down (I’m a sucker for anything Planet of the Apes).

The absolute worst was when I found myself running out of space, which forced all sorts of horrors I’ll never be able to forget. Beloved books are now mid-stack, lost in forbidding towers of flashier spines. I hope one day Game of Thrones and To Say Nothing of the Dog can find it in their hearts to forgive me. But probably nothing can forgive the dreaded double stack, with a pile of paperbacks directly in front of another. It’s fine when it’s Anne McCaffrey obscuring more Anne McCaffrey, but something is deeply wrong with the world when David Weber blocks out A.E. Van Voght.

The amount of emotion we’re capable of projecting on to things that could never emote back could power decades of mediocre day-time soap opera hand-wringing. But it must just be in our nature to attach baggage to even small choices. Or maybe this is just a revealing look at one man’s particular neuroses. Whatever it is, I’ll be tackling paranormal romance next, so watch out Stephenie Meyer.