The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life, by Eviatar Zerubavel (1993)

Genre: Nonfiction
Interest level: Adult
The Fine LineAs a librarian, classification comes naturally to me and has for years. I spot patterns quickly and look for them when they aren’t so obvious. I notice and often question grocery shelving order; I count stairs; my drawers and closets are organized. A colleague recommended this as a classic text on classification theory, old now but still useful and stimulating. Zerubavel draws on parenting, retail practices, religion, language, music and politics to show the distinctions we make are social constructs – arbitrary, dogmatic and sometimes contradictory decisions about what belongs together and what doesn’t, where boundaries lie and how we frame the world around us. He pushes the reader to question why we make these distinctions – why are hamsters pets and rats vermin? Why do we consider a Pekingese “closer” to a Great Dane than a cat? At what point is a distant cousin distant enough, as a potential sex partner? It’s the first book I’ve ready by Zerubavel — he also wrote The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations and Books. Perhaps it’s the Canadian in me, but I don’t particularly like him as a writer. The analogies he draws make me quite uncomfortable at times. I know too much about his children now. He also comes across as sexist and refers too much to religion for my taste. His writing feels critical somehow, at a time when the world needs more curiosity and tolerance of difference. But the book still works. Zerubavel notes there’s a fine balance between what he calls rigid and fuzzy perspectives, and while society can’t function without some absolutes, we need to always make sure the assumptions behind them remain valid. It’s startling and discomfiting reading at times but always thought-provoking, and somehow lingers as you look at the world and try to find the twilight zones.
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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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