The Language of Category Theory

I’m taking a week or so off from on working the d****d second edition of my logic text (it’s quite fun, if you like that sort of thing, most of the time: but it is good to take a break). I’m instead updating, just a little, my Gentle Intro to Category Theory, about which more when the revised version is ready for prime time (within the week, I hope). So I’ve now had an opportunity to take a quick look at Steven Roman’s An Introduction to the Language of Category Theory (Birkhäuser, 2017) which in fact has been out a whole year.

This book is advertised as one thing, but is actually something rather different. According to the blurb “This textbook provides an introduction to elementary category theory, with the aim of making what can be a confusing and sometimes overwhelming subject more accessible.” We might, then, expect something rather discursive, with a good amount of the kind of informal motivational classroom chat that is woven into a good lecture course and which can be missing from a conventionally structured textbook. But what we get is actually much closer to a brisk set of lecture notes. For the book travels a long way — through the usual introductory menu of categories, functors, natural transformations, universality, adjunctions (as far as Freyd’s Adjoint Functor Theorem) — and all in just 143 pages before we get to answers to exercises. Moreover, these pages are set rather spaciously, with relatively few lines to the typical page. So certainly there isn’t much room for discursive commentary.

And I would have thought that the sequencing of topics would leave floundering some of those who would appreciate a gentler introduction. So we get to the Yoneda Lemma long before we eventually meet e.g. products (and that as part of a general treatment of limit cones). Yet aren’t products a very nice topic to meet quite early on?  — in talking about them, we  explain why it is rather natural not to care about what product-objects are intrinsically (so to speak) but rather natural  to care instead about how the product gadgetry works in terms of maps to and from products. Here then is a rather nice example to meet early to motivate categorial ways of thinking. But not in this book.

Still, look at this for what it is rather than for what it purports to be. In other words,  look at this as a  set of detailed lecture notes which someone could use as back-up reading for perhaps the first half of a hard-core course, to keep things on track by checking/reinforcing definitions and key ideas, with added exercises  (notes which could then later be useful for revision purposes). Then Roman’s book does seem to be  pretty clearly done  and likely to be useful for some students. But if you were wondering what the categorial fuss is about and wanted an introductory book to draw you in, I doubt that this is it.

[Two grumbles. The book is pretty pricey for its length. And why, oh why, in an otherwise nicely produced paperback have the category theory diagrams been drawn in such an ugly way, given the available elegant standard LaTeX packages?]

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