Thursday, November 06, 2008

Impossible to categorize?

While a bookstore might be a favorite place for me to “hang out”, a constant grouse remains that in many bookstores far too many books are mischaracterized, and live on shelves they have no business being on. And that can make navigation around the bookstore a little inconvenient, to say the least. I’m never sure how books are categorized in different sections, and who does the categorizing, but far too often it just doesn’t make sense.

Science books are often a serious casualty. The science sections in many bookstores are poorly organized, and some books that should actually be there end up in other sections. I remember once looking for The Selfish Gene in a bookstore, and it wasn’t in the popular science section, or the biology section. Now this book is as good a book on genes and natural selection as can ever be found. Puzzled, I asked the person at the counter, and he finally tracked it down… the religion section. Dawkins has certainly written other books (like The God delusion) that could, conceivably, end up in the religion section, but The Selfish Gene? On the other hand, some exceptional science books end up in the “gardening” or “fishes and aquariums” section, so go figure.

The casualties very often spill over to some of my favorite authors. It doesn’t help much that many of them are British, and some of them are now dead. In a blink-and-you-are-a-forgotten-author American world, ambiguously delightful, dead British authors are bound to cause confusion. A particular favorite author of mine remains Gerald Durrell. Now, I can understand Durrell being hard to categorize. He wrote hilariously insightful autobiographical books, non-fiction and some fiction, with animals and natural history forming a backdrop. But to classify My family and other animals under “pets” does a grave and severe injustice to the author. In a bookstore we recently visited, his books were scattered across “pets”, “birds”, “animals”, “dogs”, “cats”, “animal psychology” (yes, honestly) and more. This we discovered, but only after a futile search through literature, autobiographies and natural history. It is so much easier to find the far more boring books of his brother, Lawrence, right under literature. But my very first encounter with bookstore cluelessness started with another favorite author of mine, that old master of English prose and humor, P.G. Wodehouse. Now, Wodehouse remains extremely popular in India (through some strange colonial legacy), and you can walk into any bookstore there, go straight to the literature/fiction section, and find a few dozen of his books neatly arranged. Assuming it would be the same here, I walked into a half-price bookstore years ago, strode confidently to literature, made my way down to “Woolfe”, and….no Wodehouse. A little disturbed but still calm, I shimmied like Jeeves would have down to the “fiction” shelves, and it wasn’t there either. Worried, I went up to the counter and asked. A bored clerk told me to go look for Wodehouse in the comics/humor section, and indeed I found a bunch of them there, resting unhappily between Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes collections.
At least another favorite British author of mine is easier to find, though (in my opition) grossly miscategorized. James Herriot wrote some fantastic semi-autobiographical books on his life as a vet. They really can only be classified as literature. But, while most bookstores here don’t do that, at least the books are easy to find if you walk to “veterinary science” and “animal behavior”. Finally, there is yet another fantastic author who is actually impossible to categorize. Terry Pratchett, the author of (in his own words) a series of inexplicably successful books, is usually categorized in different bookstores in these parts under “fantasy” (very reasonable), “fiction” (for want of anything better), “science fiction” (o.k, maybe), “literature” (I’ll go with that) or “comics and humor” (what can I say). While making it hard to search for his books, it at least ensures that I spend an hour in the bookstore, going from aisle to aisle. (And for those of you who don’t know, Terry Pratchett was recently diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s. Do read what he has to say about it in his own hilariously inimitable way, here).

But then, the very best authors are indeed hard (if not impossible) to classify. They do not remain within crudely drawn lines, but always flow across boundaries. This is why I miss the little independent but superbly stocked used bookstores that were almost as common as Starbucks coffee shops in Seattle, with Twice Sold Tales a perpetual favorite. Yes, there might be cats around, but you couldn’t ask for more knowledgeable bibliophiles at the counter, who loved the books they had, knew about them, and always ready to chat about books, authors, and how they could (or couldn’t) be categorized.


Anonymous said...

Very nice observations Sunil. I wish there were more well read people characterizing and organizing books on the bookshelves here. A potential start-up company may be? Just kidding.


Wavefunction said...

Heartily second the point about independent bookstores! They are great. I just ended up buying about 30 books from one yesterday (they were for sale obviously!)

Anonymous said...


I was reading ur blog posts and found some of them to be very good.. u write well.. Why don't you popularize it more.. ur posts on ur blog ‘balancing life’ took my particular attention as some of them are interesting topics of mine too;

BTW I help out some ex-IIMA guys who with another batch mate run where you can post links to your most loved blog-posts. Rambhai was the chaiwala at IIMA and it is a site where users can themselves share links to blog posts etc and other can find and vote on them. The best make it to the homepage!

This way you can reach out to rambhai readers some of whom could become your ardent fans.. who knows.. :)


Sunil said...

Aniket....a start-up? To organize books? Surely you're joking :-)

Ashutosh...30 books is a pretty impressive haul. How hard did that hit your wallet?

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