I am one of those nuts who have to categorize a book. I don't need to find 10 possible categories for a book, just one is enough. One is necessary. So, every time I finish a book, one of the first things I do is figure out which shelf it goes to. To me, this is about as exciting as even reading a book, because deciding a shelf is the ultimate way to find which concept of a book made the most impact on me. Was it its fantasy elements or the women power? Or was it its young adult focus or its literary style of writing? Most often, it's an easy task, almost intuitive and requires no pondering for longer than 2 seconds. But sometimes, a book comes along that can easily fit into 3 or 4 categories and none of those individually describe the book well.
I had one of those moments last week. I had just finished A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres, which is about the Jonestown murder 33 years ago. Many of you are probably familiar with the event behind the book - how 900+ adults and children committed suicide (some willingly, some unwillingly or without a say) because their pastor was paranoid and obsessed with the idea of taking a thousand people with him when he died. There's more to it and I'll talk about that when I review it this week. At the core, there are three main elements:
- 1. religion, the people who joined Jones' temple were looking for a church that accepted them, irrespective of their color, past history and financial status. They wanted to be accepted and Jones represented that sense of utopia that they were looking for. There are shades of blind faith but there are also shades of valid reasoning beneath all the murky implausible beliefs.
- 2. communism, Jones was a communist and he used his beliefs to get a large wing of people under him. In this case, I found the events of Jonestown mirror George Orwell's Animal Farm. And that's funny, because Animal Farm was also based on communism but it was written almost 30 years before the Jonestown events were set in motion.
- 3. crime, ultimately the book is about the largest mass murder in the US before 9/11 took away that credit. How is it possible to make 900+ people consume poison?
Ultimately, this was a book more about the people than anything they stood for. It was about how they started out as vivid enthusiasts of Jones' methods, how they willingly left their homes and moved with their church and how they took that eventual macabre step of branding their names in history. Should I create a people shelf for these kind of books? But that covers all the books ever written, except those about animals. *Hair pulling moments ensue*
When I can't categorize a book, sometimes I take the easy route and look at how goodreads users categorized the book. Sometimes that helps me, but other times, there are shelves I never use at all, like contemporary or chicklit. I shelve a book based on what it meant to me and not on how it would be shelved in a library or a bookstore. I approach it the same way I approach writing a review - I look for my experience in reading the book, instead of its merit in professional or academic circuits. I also keep my shelves at a minimal number but that doesn't help when you have so many possible baskets to drop a book in. Eventually, when I've spent enough time on the shelving process, I dump it where it makes most sense, even if it makes only 30% sense.