Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
In which I fall down a rabbit hole and just keep going
I love public libraries (as you saw in my personal tales last week), so I’m extending national library week to go playing among genres through the eyes of library catalogs. (It lets me browse new books, too, always a good time.)
I thought I’d see what categories my public library uses to classify books and, especially, to make it easy for people to find what they want to read. I know, there’s an entire degree in library and information science that includes expertise on this subject, and there are well-established systems for classifying books. I’m just exploring this topic as a reader (as well as genre-fan) to see what’s there.
Turns out it took me down a rabbit hole. A long, messy rabbit hole with lots of side twists and turns and places to burrow into. (I’ve never been in a real rabbit hole, so I hope those who have will forgive any mistakes in my metaphor.)
I started with the online catalog*. The new homepage now lists categories by actions: Browse, Read, Play, Listen, and More (well, okay, “More” is not an action, but that’s quibbling).
Graphic Novels appear under Read, along with Magazines and Newspapers. And books. But Audiobooks appear under Listen, along with Music.
Movies, TV, and Videogames are all Play, but books—even graphic novels—apparently aren’t play.
Intriguing. Libraries have definitely expanded their media since I was a child.
So the first category seems to be media—do you read, play, or listen to it? Is it a book, movie, or music? But wait, not so fast. It gets messier.
*(My library just shifted websites and both were still up last week when I compiled some of these lists, so there may be a bit of crossing over sites without my noticing. Most of the subcategory lists come from last week. Also, they spell it “catalog,” not “catalogue,” so don’t blame me.)
Medium, platform, format, genre
Then there’s the overlap across media.
Take a look at a book like Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It was once just a book but now there’s a movie version, too. But Wonder is also in the catalog (when I search for it) as an audiobook. Isn’t that a different medium from book and movie? Somewhere in between? Audiobooks were listed on the homepage directory under Listen, along with music. The catalog also has a separate listing for the e-book version—a different platform, perhaps, but not a different medium? I didn’t find a Large Print version of Wonder, but lots of other books appear in that format. Is Large Print more different from the original published book than an e-book is? There’s a soundtrack album listed, too, so Wonderhits the big three—book, movie, and music!
Medium, platform, format, genre.
Some seem pretty different—like book and movie—but others seem pretty similar—like large print and e-book versions. The audiobook version performs the whole book, while the movie performs part of the book and is considered a different art form. Are audiobooks a different art form since they perform the book differently and interpret the book for us? And the soundtrack takes part of the movie and presents it as a different art form, too, even though it comes directly from the movie.
Medium, platform, format, genre, art form. Differences without clear distinctions. I am definitely down the rabbit hole.
Hey, I promised to go exploring, not to come up with answers!
All intriguing, but I’m interested in exploring book categories, so I click on Books. Up pops a heading of “Books.” Now I’m getting somewhere.
That screen shows me many wondrous book covers, subcategorized under these headings:
Biography & Memoir
Ah, these must be the categories the library uses to categorize books!
Not so fast, Rascally Rabbit.
Large Print is there as a separate category, but not audiobooks or e-books. OK, I can dismiss a little inconsistency if it makes it easier for people to find the books they want to read, and Large Print is a smaller category than some other formats.
But wait. I notice a “General Fiction” but not General Nonfiction. I know there is such a category in the library itself, on the physical shelves where new books are divided into fiction (with subsections for mystery, romance) and nonfiction.
Where and how do I find a category to browse that might include popular trade nonfiction books?
I am still on the hunt.
So to narrow down from, well, all the books, I took a different trail by searching under New Books for the last 30 days.
As if I hadn’t taken us deep enough down the rabbit hole, I see on the side menu under “New Books” a filter for “Forms/Genres.”
I feel your pain, library. In my field of expertise, we have had long conversations about the differences between forms and genres. But even if you’ve wrangled with all that academic philosophizing, you have to pick a heading.
What do you call those labels we use to categorize books, even when they’re all just books, not movies or music or videogames? Are they all genres? Will readers know what we’re talking about if we say “genre” or will they think only of mysteries, romances, and westerns? And maybe some of those categories aren’t really genres (whatever it means to “really” be a genre).
Under New Books, when I search by “Form/Genres” I find this noticeably different but still manageable list:
But then . . . I click on “Show more”
Genres and Subgenres and Subsubgenres, Oh my!
When I click on Show more, I get a list of “Additional filters for Form/Genres” that calls up 106 separate categories, ranging from the one with the most new titles in it, Fiction with 554 new books, to 45 categories with just one new book, in alphabetical order from A Amateur Manuals to U Urban Fiction.
I click on the second most numerous category, “Suspense Fiction,” and find 117 new books divided now into new categories, ranging (after “Fiction”) from “Psychological Fiction” with 23 new books to “Spy Fiction” with just 1 new book.
Obviously, these categories overlap. They also contain duplicates in different formats, so the regular book, large print, ebook, and audiobook would all be counted separately. Assuming the most popular books are the ones the library would purchase in multiple formats, the numbers still seem like a reasonable snapshot of what categories people check out of the library.
But it’s also a snapshot of what categories libraries use, of course.
I did finally find a way to see nonfiction as a category by going to “Advanced Search” where I could filter by “collection” and find one called “Adult Non-Fiction. ” If I filter for new books (past 60 days, same as for fiction), I find 100 new Adult Non-Fiction books.
More intriguing still in my hunt, I eventually discovered that the original New Books page has a menu for “Content,” which includes three categories and the number of new books in the past 30 days:
Ooh, undetermined. You know I had to go there, but that rabbit hole would take me another 2000 words, and I’ve already tried your patience. (Oh, okay, the first two books listed there were a collection of essays by Sloane Crosley and an illustrated children’s collection of Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Undetermined.)
Well, even I must stop before I lose sight of the entrance to this rabbit hole. But what an adventure to burrow this way and that, finding seemingly endless labels for the kinds of books we read and media we consume.
Am I the Mad Hatter? Making you think libraries are insane? Or the Cheshire Cat, knowing the secret but merely smiling and fading away?
Just Alice Amy, discovering that my desire for tight logic and neat categories and clear distinctions may not apply when you’re a reader. Some books sit politely in their genre, acting properly at the tea party and easily placed on a shelf. But many—maybe most—books are more like the white rabbit. Books don’t just hold still or behave. They may even be undetermined.
And categories are slippery. Genres are tough. And I don’t envy the librarians who have to place a label—or even two or three or twenty—on every book.
Thank you to librarians everywhere for helping us find books, music, movies, or videogames that suit us, whatever they’re called.
Happy week after National Libraries Week!
In honor of national library week (April 8-14, 2018)
I love public libraries, so I’m taking advantage of national library week to tell my personal tale of public libraries. Next week, I’ll continue honoring libraries by playing among library genres. But when I started writing that piece, it turned out I first wanted to tell my own library story.
When I was a youngster, the local public library (an original Carnegie library) was a second home to me. I remember every bit of that place, where my mom would drop me off on Saturday morning and return to pick me up sometime later Saturday afternoon (whether I remember that schedule accurately or not is a question, of course, but that’s what it felt like, happily).
The library was at the front of a city park with a playground, but I don’t remember spending much time in the playground. Even when it was time for mom to pick me up, I don’t remember rushing to play on the swings. Instead, I remember sitting on the ledge of the stone steps, my back resting against the big stone lion, reading my new book treasures until she arrived. (When I made a return to my hometown as an adult, I discovered the lions were nowhere near as huge as I’d remembered them, but they loom high over me protectively in my memory.)
Instead of the playground, I spent my time in the library itself. That’s where I discovered my first categories of books—adults’ books and children’s books. At my library, those two types of books were separated physically. To reach adult books, you climbed those massive stone steps and walked through a pair of massive wood doors (remember, this is my childhood memory of it) to the adult reading room and shelves, with huge windows and tall ceilings and many wood tables and chairs for sitting and reading.
My kids’ books were in the small lower level underneath the adult library. To reach the kids’ library, you went down a flight of small cement steps on the side of the building, through a tiny door, into a dark, dank basement-feeling room with little natural light (if any?). Inside, you found a librarian at a desk in front, and tightly packed shelves of children’s books.
It was heaven.
I spent hours scouring those shelves for reading delights, checking out just as many books as the library allowed. Almost all of mine were fiction, if I remember right. As the years passed, I had read more and more of those books downstairs (I don’t even remember asking about new books, though I do remember the librarian helping me find new things to read).
Until the wondrous day I remember well, when the children’s librarian suggested I go upstairs to the adult library to find new books to check out.
But I couldn’t do that!! I wasn’t old enough! I would be breaking the rules!!!!!
It’s okay, the librarian assured me. I don’t remember if she said I should bring the books down to her to check out (which would have been tough for the rule-following me since I would have had to walk out the adult library doors with an armful of un-checked-out books like any ordinary book thief!) or if she talked to the adult librarian on my behalf or, horrors, if the rule never was actually enforced! I had always known that I couldn’t go upstairs, that the adult books were off-limits to me until I hit the required age.
I also don’t remember whether a librarian helped me find adult books that were still what they would call today “age-appropriate,” but clearly I wasn’t looking for AGE appropriate books. I was ready for the ADULT books!
It was heaven.
Today, I read some of my books on a kindle and some from my own shelves, but I still love going into the local public library. Often now I hear about a book that sounds interesting, I go online, and I reserve a copy from the library’s website. When it’s my turn for the book, the library emails me to let me know, and I can go straight to the reserve shelves to pick up and then check out the one or two books they’re holding for me.
But I don’t do that. Instead, after picking up the books on hold, I go to the New Books shelves at the front, and I browse. Fiction and nonfiction both for me, these days. I read titles, pull out interesting-looking ones, pick up ones a librarian has featured on a rack. All these books hold worlds I could open. All these delights available free of charge, for me. And I’m old enough to check out any of them.
Even now as I use my town’s own brand new, LEED certified and architecture award-winning window-filled bright and airy public library (formerly housed in a still-standing Carnegie building, but well before my time), and even then when I had finally entered the light-filled world of the real adult library, my original experience with the basement children’s library brings me the most joy.
And because libraries.
Next week, I’ll continue to honor public libraries by playing among the categories in my public library catalog and getting back to some genre ideas. But for now, I hope you all have access to a public library, that you visit it in person some times, and that you go exploring among the wealth of books on those shelves.
Happy national library week! And happy reading
“Your shoelace is untied.”
I bend down to tie my shoe.
“April Fool!” (raucous laughter)
That’s a childhood example of an April Fools’ Day prank—a trick played on the April fool that is supposed to be funny.
In the US for many Christians, Easter fell on April 1 this year, the same day as April Fools’ Day. That brought more attention to April Fools’ Day than usual, and it created all sorts of opportunities for people to share not just a church service, spring meal, or egg hunt but also pranks.
For April Fools’ Day is the day pranksters play pranks on others (then showing themselves to be April fools and then being called out as “April Fool!!!”)
What a mean tradition! But it is fun, in the right spirit.
My young great-niece gave me the best example of an April Fools’ Day prank. When we arrived at her aunt’s house for noon-time dinner, we were told that Claire had made special brownies for all of us. Since she is learning to cook and loves to do it, and since her mother had prepared homemade carrot cake and at last two kinds of cookies, complete with jelly beans and shaped like bunnies, for all of us, we just thought Claire had joined in and followed a recipe herself. Aw, how sweet!
After dinner, with all of us happy and full, Claire’s dad went with Claire to get the special brownies out of his car’s trunk. They re-entered with a covered baking sheet and offered each of us one of Claire’s special brownies. The photo of mine appears below.
What a special brown E indeed! (the paper is browner than it looks in this photo)
(Her mother tells me Alexa gets credit for the idea, but Claire executed it perfectly!)
A friend’s brother has a history of pulling elaborate pranks on his family members, though it gets harder to catch them off guard now.
That’s part of the trick of April Fools’ pranks, of course—your fool can’t be aware that it’s a trick but has to be fooled, as I was with my special brownie.
At the heart of the April Fools’ prank is that it you have to believe a lie. A gentle lie, we hope, one that does no harm, but a lie nonetheless.
That got me thinking (of course)--
What other genres require us to lie?
One obvious one is fiction of all sorts. But with fiction we know it’s not true. That’s a key distinction of fiction from nonfiction, of fictive genres versus fact-based ones—whether we are supposed to believe it is true (writers of “memoirs” like James Frey who pretend fiction is true get a lot of reader resentment and their books reclassified).
The lies of fiction are ones we know are there but pretend otherwise—the willing suspension of disbelief. There may be a deeper truth, but on the surface it’s a lie and we know it.
April Fools’ pranks we don’t know are lies. If we do, they don’t work.
Then there are jokes—funny, and usually not true, or at least exaggerated truth, but not intending to fool the listener. Again, willing suspension of disbelief in order to be amused or instructed.
Another genre that requires us to lie are childhood myths [SPOILER ALERT—do not read past if you are a child or reading aloud to a child, as I’m sure applies to many of my readers).
We create elaborate tales of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, even the Easter Bunny. For most of us, young children are told these tales as true, and we want them to believe. Just like April Fools’ pranks.
When someone finds out it’s not true (like an older sibling), we ask them to keep the secret and keep pretending the lie is true. Just like April Fools’ pranks. If you recognize the prank and you tell others, you spoil it for everybody. (There might have been some smart person in the room besides Daddy who realized what Claire’s special brownies might be, but that person did not spoil the surprise for the rest of us.)
But when you do find out the childhood tale isn’t true, there’s no laughter. No one shouts at a growing child, “Santa Claus Fool!!! Ha ha ha!!” Instead, when the truth is discovered, it’s sad. Not like April Fools’ pranks. (Unless you really were counting on a delicious brownie, I suppose)
So I wonder if the requirements of the April Fools’ prank make it a unique genre, like all genres. In this case, the prank requires you to lie successfully, and the discovery of the lie to be received as funny.
Of course, every genre has variations. Some pranksters go too far, and the prank makes the April fool mad rather than amused. I hear that many adults play the April Fools’ game that way—somehow hauling your living room sofa onto a roof, or filling your yogurt container with shaving cream, or sealing shut all the locks on your car. Ha. Not exactly funny. But the April Fools’ tradition expects the fooled one to suck it up and be a good sport, to admit that the joke’s on them. Ha ha grrr
There’s a difference between a prank and a lie, I suppose, at the heart of April Fools’ Day. Calling it a “prank” necessarily makes it less serious and all in fun.
I hope you’ll let me know if you think of other genres that depend on lies to be successful, and on others believing the lie, and for it to be a happy thing.
In these days when we can probably all think of lots of successful lies that aren’t particularly funny, and we hear more from trolls than from pranksters, it’s good to remember that being fooled isn’t always a bad thing, and that it can be good to laugh at ourselves. But let’s serve each other brown E’s rather than locking each other out
I'm not writing a blog post this week.
Seriously, I'm delayed this week and won't be able to publish my post until Tuesday this week. But it will be about April Fool's pranks. What other genres can you think of that require us to lie to be successful? Genres, not occupations
I'll be back tomorrow