A Library All “Lit” Up
Dewey Decimal Classification — 800s: Art and Recreation
By Guest Columnist Linda Maxie
When following the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, public libraries usually place their Literature books in call numbers 800-899. As a result, people who love to read the classics, poetry, and essays will find a rich treasure trove of reading material in this section.
When I taught high school students, I told them to think of literature as “art made from words.” The very best examples of the written word are considered literature. So exceptionally well-written materials (criticism, poetry, plays, novels, short stories, humor, essays, and other forms of writing) belong in the literature section.
Were you surprised to find novels in the paragraph above? Aren’t those found in the fiction section? Yes, they are; at least, most of them will be in the fiction section. When novels are new, they are seldom classified as literature. Sometimes time and acclaim will shift a novel from the fiction section to literature.
Even more rarely, a book is labeled as literature as soon as it is released. Books by Margaret Atwood come to mind. But generally, most libraries have a fiction section for novels not classified as literature. And often, libraries will have a copy of a book like The Great Gatsby in the fiction and literature sections. Since this can be confusing, it’s always better to check the library’s catalog to find a specific work.
The literature division also houses books on writing well. Most writing guides are classified at the beginning of the division in the 800-809 call numbers.
If you love to read good books and love the written word in all its variations, please browse through this division in your library. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
While you can find books in person in any library, sometimes it’s more convenient to find them online. And if you love classics, you’re in luck. Many of them are found, for free, online because they are in the public domain.
If you have a library card, it’s likely you already have access to free books of all sorts through your library’s subscription to platforms like Overdrive.
The Library of Congress provides digital access to some of its older books. My favorite collection offered by LOC is their Classic Children’s Books.
You can also find all sorts of books no longer in the public domain through Project Gutenberg, Open Culture, Open Library, and PDF Books World. Please check these out! You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find on these sites. Open Culture also has a fantastic free audiobook collection. And if you want scholarly books, check out the UPenn Online Books Page.
The following books were selected from Chapter 9 “800s Literature” from my book, Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction. Please see the book for more great titles.
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (2013)
Tracy Kidder began his collaborations with Richard Todd at the Atlantic Monthly while still an unknown writer. They first worked together on The Soul of a New Machine, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Here they provide a concise discussion of successful writing for those working with narratives, essays, or memoirs.
The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison (2019)
While acclaimed author Toni Morrison is best known for her novels such as The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, and, Beloved, she was also an editor and professor who wrote essays, speeches, and commentary on society. She spent four decades writing this collection of nonfiction.
Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction by Alan Burton (2016)
Alan Burton provides over 200 entries on the authors, characters, stories, films, filmmakers, TV shows, and subgenres of British spy fiction. The reference also has cross-references, a chronology, appendices, and a bibliography.
The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel (1984)
German-born novelist Ernst Pawel tells of the tragic life of Franz Kafka, the genius behind The Metamorphosis and The Trial. Pawel details the harsh events of Kafka’s life and their influence on his disturbing work.
How to Live, Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (2011)
Renaissance essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is considered one of the world’s greatest essayists and the first modern individual. His essays are as enjoyable today as they were in his own time. Acclaimed biographer Sarah Bakewell relates the life of Montaigne and the questions he pondered in this engaging biography.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)
Primo Levi presents 21 essays, each named after one element on the periodic table. Each renders his experience as a Jewish-Italian chemist in the years before, during, and after his time in Auschwitz. It was named the best science book in the history of the world by the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges (1999)
While Jorge Louis Borges is best known for his fiction and poetry, most of his actual writing was nonfiction, consisting of essays, reviews, prologues, lectures, and notes on culture. He presents a sampling here.
Tales from Ovid: Twenty-four Passages from the Metamorphoses by Ted Hughes (1997)
British poet laureate Ted Hughes created a stir when he published this retelling of The Metamorphoses of Ovid, one of the great works of classic poetry. Hughes translates 24 of the stories in this critically acclaimed volume.
Why Homer Matters: A History by Adam Nicholson ( 2014)
Homer’s epic poems tell us about much more than the mythology of the ancient Greeks of 4,000 years ago. The origins of the Iliad and the Odyssey, says Adam Nicolson, go back much further to the steppes of Eurasia, where their earliest versions are lost. Nicolson notes that they hold a unique place in our collective psyche and culture as the myths uniting the Western world.
From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson, eds (1986)
Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson, both of whom have lived in Japan and are fluent in the language, translated this survey of Japanese literature.
Linda Maxie is a retired librarian passionate about good books. She is the author of Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction and her blog, The Nonfiction Section. Contact her at https://librarylin.com.