The Simplicity This Side of Complexity…

I love this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity I would give my right arm” (figs, one must presume, being much more readily–and affordably–attainable in post-Civil War Boston than present-day Seattle)

But it had not until recently occurred to me that such garden-variety simplicity could actually be worse than useless.

I read the brief of a design competition the other day asking for a signage system The competition sponsors (administrators of an expensive private school) “our revolutionary library classification system will be based on how students intuitively think about and explore topics; discarding the arbitrary alphabetization of fiction authors and the meaninglessly abstract Dewey decimal system for non-fiction, all our books will instead be categorized by concept. If a student wanted to learn more about Alaska, for instance she might go to the aisle for Places, find the section on the United States and then the group of books about Alaska. Another student interested in dinosaurs would find the whole collection under Animals: Dinosaurs”

The brief outlined the 24 categories into which…someone…had divided the universe of literature and asked for both a color and a pictogram for each. The competition prize was handsome, so I found myself back at the brief several times; perhaps there was an elegant solution I had missed in my rush to judgment? But no. The idea simply broke down once a reader progressed beyond board books.

Where, for example, would one look for the American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird?”
Under Animals: Birds, right?

Okay, then. Places: United States: Alabama?
Times and Seasons: Great Depression?
Professions: Law?

How about Social Issues: Race, Rape, Murder, Poverty, Disability, or Advocacy?
Honor? Sacrifice? Coming of Age?
What about Burned-out Tree? (the image that stuck most prominently in my mind the first time I read it. I may have been just a bit young.)

In fact, I can’t think of a single book worth reading that is about ONE thing. And I feel deeply inordinately concerned about a library full either of books gutless enough to be classified by such a system or teachers one-dimensional enough themselves to reduce the treasured worlds and heroes of my childhood to a pictogram.

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