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It’s the best feeling in the world to wander into a used bookstore and find bulging shelves and teetering towers of musty, yellowed, and unorganized books- if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, that is. If you’re looking for something specific, you might easily get frustrated with all the digging. (Be sure to vent outdoors. You wouldn’t want to cause an avalanche.) Luckily, libraries and firsthand bookstores- including the online ones- do readers a service by categorizing their books by genre. The genre system certainly makes navigating all of those titles easier for the reader.
In my opinion, there are just a few ways in which the systems falls short of perfect. Good books generally are, in the first place, difficult to fit into a single category. Genres can be either too vague (like “Fantasy”- who’s fantasy are we talking about, here?) or too constricting (can the characters in a “Romance” novel have aspirations and challenges other than finding a lover, or are they limited to the bedroom?). Often books overlap or defy these genres, teetering somewhere in the gray space between.
Take for example, the “Gay and Lesbian” genre. Such a vague title does not do justice to the multiple subgenres of Gay and Lesbian literature in existence. Just like literature written by, for, and about heterosexual individuals, there are Gay and Lesbian autobiographies, Gay and Lesbian romance novels, Gay and Lesbian comedies… You get the idea. In addition, “Gay and Lesbian” inaccurately excludes mention of works regarding other minorities such as members of the Trans community, which are usually shelved in the “Gay and Lesbian” section.
The “segregated” shelving of “Gay and Lesbian” literature is not so much itself discrimination as it is an indicator of lingering inequality within our society. After all, giving “Gay and Lesbian” books a separate space on the shelf has probably made it easier for readers seeking support or education on related topics to find exactly what they need without a lot of digging. On the other hand, the separation might also discourage readers from venturing near, lest they be judged harshly by their fellow patrons.
However intimidating or convenient the segregation might seem, it certainly does prove an interesting example of the ways in which we Americans creates genres for living people and try to make them fit. We label and parse people based on our differences. Throughout history, we have divided ourselves and created categories of “us” and “the others.” Maybe those categories prevent us from feeling as if we’re lost in a used bookstore, but the problem is that the dominant “genre” of people has always attempted (and often managed) to suppress the rights of “the others.” Time after time, “the others” have risen up and demanded to be seen as equal. In an effort, perhaps, to make things right, these people have had a place on the shelves dedicated to their struggles and successes. Yet the fact still remains that genre titles such as “African Americans” or “Gay and Lesbians” force certain books to remain in the category of “other.”
While genres and categories can create a sense of clarity and unity about all that they encompass, they aren’t perfect. Most times they could benefit from some re-labeling. For example, a “Civil Rights” genre might be created to give due attention to the struggles and successes of minorities while allowing other types of minority literature to be shelved along with other genres such as “Sci-fi” and “Young Adult.” Our bookshelves seem to be telling us that a change is needed in the way we see our books and our fellow human beings.