The Sunday Salon: Shelving a read book (and fretting about it)

Sunday, October 23, 2011


The Sunday 
Salon.com

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?

I eventually shelved the book under crime, because I don't like to have a religion shelf, and also because communism as a shelf doesn't make sense to me. I typically define my shelves based on categories that I read. So political ideas maybe, communism, no way. And almost all times, I've had a single dominant theme to describe the book by, but this one title defied me on all counts. Sure, it's about a major crime, but the whole events weren't a case of meticulous planning typically involved in crimes of this magnitude. There was some planning, but the book didn't focus so much on that as on the people who constituted Jonestown. Which brings me to the people themselves - they were clearly looking for a faith to define themselves by, but this book isn't about different kinds of faith or what faith means to people. That's all covered, but they aren't the standout elements of the book. The same goes for communism as well. It made some great appearances through the book, but the book wasn't about the practice of communism at all.

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.


21 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Oh I hate when there isn't a clear cut place to shelve a book, because then when I want to find it again I can't!  I do have a religion section, but I don't think I would put that book there.  Maybe politics, maybe psychology?  Gosh, I just would not be able to decide!

ChewDigest said...

See, I wouldn't have even thought of the whole communism aspect, although you are right..but one man's communism is another man's cult. I usually keep it simple, my nonfiction is broken down into Bios, American History, Art & Architecture, then a sort of catchall. That baby, would have ended up there for me;) 

Can't wait for your review: I have always been intrigued by cults, or really what sort of person joins and how far they go. Just like hypnotism, I have never "gotten" it. Never been one to turn my will over to others, just ask my parents!

Natasha F. Vasillis said...

I love this post! I would have placed this book on my nonfiction shelf. I might have placed this in the religion section with the author's memoir Jesusland, but it depends on how I felt about the religious parts. I don't have many different sections on my shelves: textbooks, religion/spirituality, non-fiction, fiction, children's books, and library check-outs. I've never thought to have a psychology section though I own tons of books in that subject.

Amy said...

I never thought about doing this with my books but I think it's a great idea.  I may try it. If I do, I think I'll start more simply so a book like this one would go in Non-fiction right now.  If I were to break it down more, I think I might put it under religion because that's what his followers where looking for and Jones represented a kind of god to them....but it's definitely a difficult choice. 
I love your graphic,  It's great!

Where did you put this book?!

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Shelving sounds tough :) I stick to alphabetical and by age group.

epkwrsmith said...

I'm a weirdo...I shelve them based on genre and how I feel about them...children's books in the youngest's room, YA books in the YAs rooms, man books in the Head of the Household's study, TBR books in my study, cookbooks and other various keepers in the built ins in the den...and the ones I like best, no matter what genre, in the glass doored secretary in the den.  

zibilee said...

I don't typically shelve my books in any special way, but I have to say that all the questioning that you did about this book really has me eager to read it now, which is great because it's already on my shelf waiting for me! It sounds like it makes one think very deeply about a lot of different things, and that to me is the mark of a really successful read. Very interesting and provocative thoughts here today, Aths! I enjoyed reading them!

Helen Murdoch said...

I love that you agonize over what category a book fits into since we have that issue all the time at work. The Jonestown story is just so overwhelming, but so interesting.

Also, I've given you the Versatile Blogger Award (you can see it here: http://www.helensbookblog.com/2011/10/thank-you-to-bonnie-of-bonnies-books.html)

Zohar said...

Some books just can't be shelfed, I actually enjoy books which are difficult to categorized. As you mentioned they hit more than one subject. Many history books are like that because they do touch several subject all working together.

http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

Athira / Aths said...

I need one of those combo shelves for books like this. I even considered history, but this isn't so far back that I want to call it history. Gah!

Athira / Aths said...

The reason cult never entered my mind is because right at the start of the book, the author mentioned that she never used the word 'cult' anywhere in the book, unless she was quoting sources. Her goal was to show why this wasn't a cult. Of course, I ended up debating the point internally, it's easy to skew a picture in any direction to show what you mean. But in the end, I felt bad for the many people who were stuck in Jonestown because they couldn't escape at all. Man, you should read about mob power in this book - scary!

So I digressed lol, but I would love it if you read this, because I would love to discuss that point with you.

Athira / Aths said...

Religion is the best shelf for this book, but the only problem in my case is that's the only book on that shelf in that case. And I don't usually read that category. Still, better to put it in the right shelf than the wrong one.

Athira / Aths said...

For now, it's on the crime shelf, but I'm increasingly feeling tempted to put it on the religion shelf, even if that's the only book there. It's just like you said - that's what the book is ultimately about, how blindly following a faith caused this tragedy for them.

Athira / Aths said...

I keep changing how my shelves are ordered, lol. But my online shelves are definitely categorized by genre.

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I don't shelve my read books in any particular way.  Lately, I've been working on trying to let go of them.

Athira / Aths said...

That's a good way to shelve. I keep changing my methods every few months, but lately this is the one that has stuck.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks so much, Helen! :)

I wish I didn't agonize so much over shelving, but I love to have some structure to things.

Athira / Aths said...

I agree with you that I too love books that can't be shelved. I love that this book has so many flavors and that it's hard to isolate one. I still wish though that I could point to one dominant theme, but oh well, it's alright.

Athira / Aths said...

I never used to either, but lately, I couldn't find the books I'm looking for - they're all over the place.

Faye Crathern said...

I haven't

Athira / Aths said...

I eventually shelved it in crime, as I guess this book may not have been written if not for the crime happening.