You may have some questions about the literature books in your collection. What counts as literature? All your novels? All your poetry? Your extensive collections of sports writing? All those literary biographies you’ve stockpiled? The definition of literature and the types of books that can be found here are outlined below.
Another issue with this section, along with Religion (200s) and Language (400s), is that it highlights the worldview of Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System, in ways that may be irritating for some people. I will explain how later. For now, just be assured that there is room in this classification scheme for any literature, past or present.
Let’s get started.
Home library organization
People who love books often accumulate large collections. And it can be frustrating when you want to consult a particular book, only to find yourself wasting a lot of time trying to track it down. You’re pretty sure you still have it, but it’s lost among all the others.
In an earlier post, I outlined the advantages of using the Dewey Decimal Classification system for organizing your nonfiction books. If you have a lot nonfiction print books in your collection, reading that post is the first step.
I listed a few types of subjects that belong in the 800s (Literature) section in the first article. Books that talk about literature as a topic unto itself, those that compare literatures, books about rhetoric, books critiquing outstanding novels, collections of short fiction, poetry, speeches, essays, letters, humor and satire and any books that discuss them go in the 800s.
If more than 30 of your books belong in literature, read on. This post will give you the guidance to further refine the placement of the literature books in your collection.
The chart above covers the basic ten categories of the DDC. If you haven’t gone through your books to decide where they belong, you may want to look at my previous post and go through those steps first. Then come back here for more in depth information on the ninth category: the 800s Literature.
The 4-step process for home library organization
The four-step home organization process is covered in more detail in “Easy Home Library Organization Using the Dewey Decimal System.” But here, briefly, are the steps:
- Examine the chart above.
- Decide in which category each book belongs.
- Make piles of books for each category.
- Decide where each category will be housed.
Very few personal collections contain books in every category. You may be surprised to find 90 percent of your books can be grouped into one specific section.
The literature section in the DDC may irritate some readers. Modern readers might be surprised that the majority of the classification numbers are devoted to literatures of European and North American origin.
As I mentioned in the post on religion books, in the early 1990s, I witnessed a heated discussion between a fellow library science student and a library professor over a similar issue in the religion books. The student was upset because over half the numbers are devoted specifically to Christian history, doctrine, scripture, and the like. From a global perspective, this is absurd. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s population identifies as non-Christian.
But the professor was equally upset that the student would not concede that there is a place in the system for every religion. Her point was that, even if all the other religions are crammed into the 290s, it does not matter because they have a place.
I could see both sides. Dewey created his system in the 1870s. As an American male librarian from that period in history, he had societal and personal biases. At the time, most of the Western world was Christian and Dewey had no way of knowing how many subjects in his system, including religion, would gain or lose prominence, even within America and Europe.
Likewise, at the time, America and Europe had Eurocentric views of the world. This is why they are given so much space. They were far and away the most studied literatures of that time in those places.
While the Dewey Decimal Classification system is tweaked periodically, some would argue it is in need of a complete overhaul. But the staff-hours and expense for most public and school libraries would require to do so would be prohibitive. Another concern would be the idiosyncratic methods some libraries may use, making book classification less consistent across institutions. Change may come one day, but for now, I’ll describe it as it is.
If you are annoyed by this section of the system and would like to come up with your own method of classification, please feel free to. Your home collection is yours to do with as you’d like.
But if you are simply wanting to get your books sorted, this post should clear up where to place your literature books.
Below is a chart that further subdivides the Literature category.
You may want to look over each subdivision and further divide your books accordingly. If you chose to make a spreadsheet of your books as suggested in “Easy Home Library Organization Using the Dewey Decimal System”, you may want to further mark your books on the spreadsheet, catalog card, or notebook. Directions for the process are in “Simple Record-Keeping for Your Home Library.” By subdivide, I mean if you had 30 books marked as belonging in Literature 800), you may now have 10 of those marked at 810, 5 as 820, 3 as 880, and 12 as 890.
Every book collection is different. The point is to narrow your collection down more specifically, so you will be able to locate the books effortlessly when you need to find one.
Literature books in brief
This section is sometimes called belles-lettres and it includes rhetoric and literary criticism. Rhetoric discusses the various factors involved in writing effectively. Criticism is not a negative evaluation of writing. Instead, it is a discussion of the themes, elements, symbolism, and techniques in a writer’s work, or in a particular piece of writing. Criticism can be an art form of its own.
Fiction novels and short stories can be shelved here, but they are generally placed in sections of their own unless they are included in works of criticism relating to them. Since the majority of novels and short stories never get analyzed in more depth than reviews, they would not really be candidates for the literature section.
Each of the ten categories below potentially contain works of criticism, rhetoric, poetry, essays, speeches, letters, humor and satire, and miscellaneous writings (outlined in 810 below). Whether or not you find it depends upon the people who have been responsible for building that particular library collection.
This first general section in literature books is for treatments of literature that involve either all literatures or more than two in more than one language family. It contains books on the philosophy and theory of literary criticism. This includes works on the influence, effect, nature, character, techniques, and principles of criticism. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and concordances of literature go here. And so do serials, like “best of” type books that are published annually. An example would be a book titled The Best Plays of 2019.
Rhetoric books belong here. Rhetoric is a term that sounds so musty is makes the nose itch. But these books are actually helpful for advice on how to write, or give speeches, or be funny without being annoying. They give authors techniques, and ways to avoid plagiarism, and they give editors techniques to make writing better. Collections of short stories or collected biographies of authors that cover more than one language would go in this section too.
Another issue in this section is how books come to be shelved in the section they are in. This is how it roughly works: When I talk about literature from say, the Germanic languages, I do not mean the author of the books there must speak German. The author can be from Australia and speak English, it doesn’t matter. The subject of the book is what matters. If it is an examination of Goethe, it will belong in the 830s with the other German literatures because Goethe was a Germanic language speaker. So books are shelved here by topic of the book.
Recommended Books in the general literature and rhetoric section:
- Waiting for the Barbarians by David Mendelsohn
- Thrice Told Tales: Three Mice Full of Writing Advice by Catherine Lewis
- MFA in a Box: A Why to Write a Book by John Rember
- Blood on the Stage: Milestone Plays of Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem by Amnon Kabatchnik
- Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
810 American literature in English
This section is only for works that were written in English and published in North America, Central America, South America, Hawaii, and other geographically associated island like the Caribbean islands. Note that American authors whose primary language is Spanish, Portuguese, native, or any other, would not belong in this section, but would belong in the language of origin.
So this subsection and all subsequent subsections include the literatures of poetry, fiction, essays, speeches, letters, humor and satire, and miscellaneous writings published in those languages. Miscellaneous writings include, but are not limited to debates, conversations, anecdotes, epigrams, jokes, quotations, riddles, and tongue twisters.
Recommended in American literature in English:
- Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan
- Lit by Mary Karr
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
- Adler on America’s Master Playwrights: Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, et. al. by Stella Adler
- The Facts of Life by Maureen Howard
- Edith Wharton: A Biography by R.W.B. Lewis
- Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
- Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
820 English and Old English (Anglo-Saxon) literatures
Back to the collected works or biographies of authors mentioned in 800 above. If you have a book that has works written in English about writers from Canada, The United States, any part of the British isles, and/or Australia, they would be shelved here in the 820s. This is because this section is for English from all over the world, unless everything in it was written in America (in which case it belongs in the 810s. I hope that makes sense.
So this section includes literature from England and all of Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa, and any other part of the world outside the Americas, where people write and publish in English.
Recommended books in English and Old English:
- The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
- Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 by Richard Holmes
- Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom
- The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
- Thomas Carlyle: A Biography by Fred Kaplan
- Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann
- Beowulf: A New Translation by Seamus Heaney
830 German literature and literatures of related languages
All the literature categories in 810 that were written in German, Alsatian, Franconian, Pennsylvania Dutch, Swabian, and the Swiss-German dialects are shelved here. In addition, Yiddish, Frisian, low German (Plattdeutsch), North Germanic (Nordic), East Scandinavian, Old Norse (Old Icelandic), Icelandic, Faroese, and East Germanic literatures are here. In addition, it contains Netherlandish, Afrikaans, Dutch, Flemish, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian literatures and all the variations of dialects of each.
Recommended books in German literature and literatures of related languages:
- Last Essays by Thomas Mann
- The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss
- The Sagas of the Icelanders by Ornolfur Thorsson
- Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman
840 French literature and literatures of related Romance languages
While there is a lot of literature in this section, the list of languages is shorter than would be thought because there are separate sections for the other Romance languages. This section would be for French literature and literatures in Occitan, Catalan, Franco-Provençal and the Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocien, Limousin, and Provencal dialects.
Note that comprehensive works on Romance languages are shelved in this section. So if you had a collection of criticisms of French, Italian, and Spanish novels, they would be shelved here.
Recommended books from literatures of French and related languages:
- Victor Hugo: A Biography by Graham Robb
- Rimbaud: A Biography by Graham Robb
- Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
- Candide by Voltaire
- Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman
850 Literatures of Italian, Dalmatian, Romanian, Rhaetian, Sardinian, and Corsican languages
This only applies to the specific languages above. It is for works related to just one of them (Sardinian poetry for example), or for collected works written in or about several of them (like a book of speeches in Italian, Dalmatian, and Corsican). If it were a book on French and Italian poetry, it would be shelved in the 840s.
Recommended books from Italian, Romanian and related literatures:
- The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
- The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
- Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino
860 Literatures of Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician languages
Recommended books in literatures of Spanish and related literatures:
- The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life by Gerald Martin
- Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
- Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life by Ian Gibson
870 Latin literature and literatures of related Italic languages
Besides Latin, both the Sabellian languages and Osco-Umbrian language literatures would be shelved here.
Note that works combining information about classic Latin and Greek should be shelved in the 880s.
Recommended books from Italic and Latin literatures:
- Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Higlet
- Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes
- Modern Romance Literatures edited by Dorothy Curley and Arthur Curely
880 Classical Greek literature and literatures of related Hellenic languages
Because both the 870s and this subsection are both for ancient languages, the literature categories are a little different from all the others. They for both they include Classical poetry, dramatic poetry and drama epic poetry and fiction, lyric poetry, speeches, letters, humor and satire, and miscellaneous writings. The modern Greek literatures included in the 880s and have the same categories as those in 810-860 and 890. Katharevousa and Demotic literatures are shelved here as well.
Recommended in Hellenic and Classical Greek literatures:
- Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson
- Homer and the Heroic Tradition by Cedric H. Whitman
- They Odyssey by Nikos Kazantzakis
890 Literatures of specific languages and language families
As mentioned above, everything else in the world is placed in this last section. I will state here the general order in which these books should be placed according to the Dewey Decimal System.
First are Indo-European and Celtic languages which include the modern Indo-Aryan literatures, Celtic literatures, Russian and East Slavic literatures, and South Slavic literatures like Serbian and Polish. Second, are the Afro-Asiatic literatures like Hebrew, Arabic, and Maltese. Third, are Non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages like Egyptian, Coptic, and Chad. These are followed by literatures of Altaic, Uralic, Hyperborean, Dravidian, and South Asia. So these would include Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Munda literatures. Next, are African literatures. Note that languages like Afrikaans, go in the 830s (Germanic literatures). After this are the literatures of both North and South American Native cultures. Finally, the literatures of non-Austronesian languages of Oceania, the Austronesian languages, and miscellaneous language literatures that belong nowhere else go in the 890s.
Recommended books from other literatures:
- The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
- The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee
- Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land by Amos Oz
- Dawn to the West by Donald Keene
- From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry edited by Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Sit back and admire your organized shelves
Once you have further subdivided your literature books, be sure to update any spreadsheets or card catalogs you may have made for them. If you don’t know how, you can find directions in “Simple Record-Keeping for Your Home Library.” Part of the joy of having a system is that you will never need to worry about misplacing a beloved book again.
Now pour yourself a favorite beverage and enjoy your organized book collection.
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