Next week in class (“The Life Cycle of Information”), I’ll be leading a discussion on how influences such as culture and language shape the frameworks through which we organize information. It relates strongly to the human impulse to categorize. Our entire thought processes tend revolve around putting “like with like.” I think this partially explains why people sometimes have trouble accepting people or ideas that exist within more than one existing category, or outside of the established categories altogether.
The reading and my preparation for the discussion got me thinking about some wildly popular young adult books, and how they include “sorting.” Harry Potter* is the obvious example. In the first book, each new Hogwarts student goes through a public sorting ceremony, which places him or her in one of four houses. Each house has a particular set of attributes. Similarly, in Veronica Roth’s dystopian YA novel, Divergent, all of society is based on five different factions (Abegnation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite) to which people can belong. Again, each faction draws a different kind of person. Even with The Hunger Games, there’s the divide between the (tyrannical) Capitol and the twelve Districts it rules. And each District has its own distinct culture.
The trailer for the upcoming movie version of Divergent. It doesn’t come out until 2014, but luckily the third installment in the trilogy (Allegiant) comes out in only a few weeks.
What interests me most is not so much the existence of these different sorting systems in the books (though I think it’s fascinating how both Divergent and Harry Potter both take on the limitations and problems caused by having such fixed social categories). I’m more curious about the way fan culture incorporates these aspects of the books. When WB debuted the interactive online reading experience, Pottermore, one of the most discussed features was its official** sorting quiz. I personally had somewhat of an existential crisis when it placed me in Slytherin, the house known for its members’ evil cunning and ambition. After months of internal struggle, I came to the conclusion that the quiz did not take into account my strong rejection of Slytherin’s trademark traits, and thus I consider myself a Ravenclaw.
This song and video really captures the depth of fans’ attachments to their Hogwarts houses for me.
Likewise, many tumblr posts, fanart and quizzes are dedicated to studying the faction system within Divergent. In fact, before I even read the book, I kept seeing different posts about these mysterious “factions.” Curious about which one I would fall into, I finally read the book. Similarly with The Hunger Games, there’s a wealth of quizzes about which districts people are most suited for. Again, it’s to a lesser extent as residence in each District is a matter of dictatorship rather than personal choice. But I still find it intriguing that all three of these bestselling series incorporate worlds where people live in formally defined categories.
It reminds me of something one of my favorite musicians, Alex Carpenter (see above), said in a recent video blog he did about rivalry.
“We’re saying to someone, ‘Hey. We both like the same thing, pretty much. We both like this sport, or this book, but we’re going to create a division within that just so we can yell at each other and pretend that we don’t like the same thing.’”
This brings me back to the reading I’ve been doing for class, and the way we seem to instinctively categorize and subcategorize both ourselves and the world around us. There are people who like books, and within that, people who like certain types of books (fantasy, dystopian, young adult, etc.), even people who like specific series. But within that already pretty specific category, it keeps on dividing. Into people who sort themselves one way or another.
Do you have any other examples of popular series that have the attraction of sorting? If you have your own sorting story, share it in the comments!
*Harry Potter is a bit ambiguous in terms of it’s designated reader age. It’s a children’s book series with some very adult themes and crossover appeal. I DON’T KNOW WHICH CATEGORY TO PUT IT IN. But since its protagonists are teenagers and many young adults read it, I’ll include it.
**J.K. Rowling herself approved and tested it, which gave it much more authority than if it was just a quiz WB had created without her input.