I'm the sort of mathematician who works really well with elements. I really enjoy point-set topology, and category theory tends to drive me crazy. When I was given a bunch of exercises on subjects like limits, colimits, and adjoint functors, I was able to do them, although I am sure my proofs were far longer and more laborious than they should have been. However, I felt like most of the understanding I gained from these exercises was gone within a week. I have a copy of MacLane's "Categories for the Working Mathematician," but whenever I pick it up, I can never seem to get through more than two or three pages (except in the introduction on foundations).

A couple months ago, I was trying to use the statements found in Hartshorne about glueing schemes and morphisms and realized that these statements were inadequate for my purposes. Looking more closely, I realized that Hartshorne's hypotheses are "wrong," in roughly the same way that it is "wrong" to require, in the definition of a basis for a topology that it be closed under finite intersections. (This would, for instance, exclude the set of open balls from being a basis for $\mathbb{R}^n$.) Working through it a bit more, I realized that the "right" statement was most easily expressed by saying that a certain kind of diagram in the category of schemes has a colimit. At this point, the notion of "colimit" began to seem much more manageable: a colimit is a way of gluing objects (and morphisms).

However, I cannot think of any similar intuition for the notion of "limit." Even in the case of a fibre product, a limit can be anything from an intersection to a product, and I find it intimidating to try to think of these two very different things as a special cases of the same construction. I understand how to show that they are; it just does not make intuitive sense, somehow.

For another example, I think (and correct me if I am wrong) that ~~the sheaf condition on a presheaf can be expressed as stating that the contravariant functor takes colimits to limits~~. [This is not correct as stated. See Martin Brandenburg's answer below for an explanation of why not, as well as what the correct statement is.] It seems like a statement this simple should make everything clearer, but I find it much easier to understand the definition in terms of compatible local sections gluing together. I can (I think) prove that they are the same, but by the time I get to one end of the proof, I've lost track of the other end intuitively.

Thus, my question is this: Is there a nice, preferably geometric intuition for the notion of limit? If anyone can recommend a book on category theory that they think would appeal to someone like me, that would also be appreciated.

certainbooks in the mirror. There are other books that you would find easier to read in the mirror"? $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark May 25 '10 at 17:26