Genre matters: The Bible and the Dewey Decimal system

The Bible is a book.

It’s a bunch of books, actually, a bunch of different books written at different times by different people for different purposes. A bunch of different books in different genres.

The Dewey Decimal system acknowledges this, offering a classification for the Bible as a whole (220) and for a (somewhat inadequate) series of sub-categories, numbered 221-229.

But if you didn’t know that the books of the Bible were the books of the Bible, the Dewey Decimal system would have you running all over the library trying to figure out how to classify this odd pile of texts. Some of them, I suppose, should get shelved at 892 (“Afro-Asiatic literatures: Semitic”) while others should find a home in section 933 (“History of ancient world: Palestine”) but in several cases you’d be hard pressed to figure out which was which.

Quite a few of these smaller volumes could be shelved as 886 (“Classical Greek letters”). But then a handful should probably just be shelved as 880 (“Hellenic literatures; Classical Greek”) since they contain such a mix of elements that you could make a case for classifying them as 883, 885, 887 or 933. And if we don’t count the very special place the Dewey Decimal system provides for John’s Apocalypse (228), then it would be hard to know what to do with such a book, since apocalypses — a genre unto itself — don’t really have a home in Dewey’s system.

The good news is that this is only a hypothetical exercise and you won’t ever really have to go off into the stacks with a cart of 66 books, some of which defy easy classification.

The bad news is that if you want to read those 66 books, then you’ll still need to figure all that out. You need to figure out what kind of books these are because unless you know what kind of book you’re reading, you won’t know how to read it.

Generally, this is something we do almost unconsciously. We understand that there are different genres and different kinds of texts, and we’re usually pretty good at allowing the kind of text to provide the context for what we’re reading.

Thus if you were waiting in line at the store and you saw a headline reporting that “Obama Meets With Space Aliens,” you would react differently if that headline were in the Weekly World News than you would if it were in The New York Times. You realize, I hope, that the Times makes factual claims that it attempts to support and to confirm through investigation, while the Weekly World News makes the most outrageous claims it can dream up in the hopes of getting you to buy a copy on your way out of the store. If the latter reported on space aliens at the White House, you would ignore it. If the former reported the same thing, you would be excited because something important has just happened (either space aliens have landed, or the Times has lost its collective mind — either one would be Big News).

Sadly, not everyone is able to make the distinction between the contrasting genres of supermarket tabloids and actual newspapers, nor does everyone understand that these different sorts of texts need to be read differently.

Bookstores and libraries help us by separating texts by genre — fiction over there, history over there, biography there, and so on. But an experienced reader won’t need to rely on such assistance to figure out what sort of book they are reading. Quite often you can figure it out from the very first lines. “Once upon a time,” you read, and you can guess this is a fairy tale or a children’s story. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo,” you read, and you may still be guessing it’s a children’s story, even though the title made it sound like it would be a biography. (In the case of that particular book, that guess would be wrong, but you’d probably figure that out before the end of the first chapter.)

But here is one of my great frustrations: many readers, just like the Dewey Decimal system, treat the Bible as a special case unto itself. They treat the Bible as its very own genre, disregarding all the indicators its many books themselves provide about what kinds of texts they actually are. Or they treat the Bible as though it somehow is a text that has no genre.

And when you read without regard for genre then you’re bound to misread whatever it is you’re reading.

This is a problem for some individual readers of the Bible, but the larger problem is that some of the loudest and most visible self-proclaimed “experts” on the Bible are themselves misreading it, and misrepresenting it, and thereby causing others to misread it as well, and to reject it on the basis of that misreading.

My complaint here is not that these latter readers don’t value the Bible the way that I do, but that they have been convinced — misled — to dismiss it for reasons that have more to do with the misreadings of those purported “experts” than with the actual book itself.

I’m kind of psyched for Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit later this year. My wife won’t be going with me to see it because she’s doesn’t much care for the fantasy genre. She doesn’t enjoy movies with hobbits and elves in them. Fair enough — she recognizes the genre and she doesn’t like it.

But if, instead, she said, “I don’t want to see some documentary about hobbits and elves because there’s no such thing as hobbits and elves,” then I think we would need to have a further conversation. That conversation would not be an attempt to get her to love Tolkien’s stories and Jackson’s movies as much as I do, but it would have to address the distinction between a documentary and an epic fantasy set in Middle Earth.

(I want to tie in a few more points here, but that will have to wait for a Part 2 to this post. I promise it will be as wordy and dull as this first part was.)

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  • I promise it will be as wordy and dull as this first part was.

    I’ve seen you do wordy just fine.  I’m not sure you can pull off dull.  I certainly have no memories of you achieving it.

  • JustoneK

    HELLO I am here for the long argument about semantics!  /adjusttie

  • Jon Frater

    I followed every word and am eagerly waiting for more.  The first few paragraphs help suggest why so many libraries catalog books (including the Bible in all its myriad forms) according to Library of Congress standards.

    I hate Dewey.

  • mirabilis

    But the call numbers under the Library of Congress subject-based system are so much more fun, where the Bible is shelved under BS.

  • Magic_Cracker

    You need to figure out what kind of books these are because unless you know what kind of book you’re reading, you won’t know how to read it.

    Nonsense. I don’t need to look at your house’s blueprints in order to shit all over the living room.

  • John

    Wait a minute… You married a woman who doesn’t like hobbits?

  • Tonio

    Perhaps many people “treat the Bible as its very own genre, disregarding all the indicators its many books themselves provide about what kinds of texts they actually are” because they believe the book to be authoritative. I’ve heard some Christians use the allegory of the Bible being a course textbook and judgment after death as being the final exam. If one has been told to treat the book as an authority, it may be natural to read it with sweat on one’s brow and a heightened pulse, fearful that one might draw divine wrath by arriving at an interpretation that displeases the god. Literalism, or what Fred more correctly calls pseudo-literalism, might seem to such a person as a safe option. I suspect that only a minority of Christians might actually have that fear.

  • Div School Survivor

    Not just the Bible, but most biblical interpretation as well.

  • Tonio

    Can I vent for a moment on behalf of me and my family? We’re repulsed by the greed of New Line Cinema in expanding Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit from a duology to a trilogy, just to get another $40 or $50 out of us. Deathly Hallows benefited from being a two-parter because Half-Blood Prince felt too much like an outline, leaving out crucial elements from the novel. But I don’t know if there’s enough story in Tolkein’s book to make seven or eight hours of screen time. What are they going to do, make the middle installment entirely about Gollum? That at least I’d welcome just for the spectacle.


    married a woman who doesn’t like hobbits? 

    No… a woman who doesn’t like stories about hobbits.

  • Jim Roberts

    From what I’ve read, it sounds like they’re incorporating a lot of the material from the Silmarillion and other sources. There’s lots of times where Bilbo’s wandering through his adventures only to have Gandalf or Random Power Elf show up and say, “After doing a bunch of stuff off-screen, we’ve solved your problem – go on the next scene, little hobbit.”

    Not really very good visual storytelling, that.

  • Vermic

    We’re repulsed by the greed of New Line Cinema in expanding Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit from a duology to a trilogy, just to get another $40 or $50 out of us.

    Repulsed would be inaccurate in my case, but you can put me down as skeptical that the story of Thorin & Company can be told across three feature-length films without feeling horribly padded.  I will grant that The Hobbit is a fairly hasty book: chapters are short, the pace is quick, and there are plenty of events, locations, and characters that’d benefit from a telling that provides them with extra attention and detail (for example, most of the dwarves).  That said — three films?  Really?

    I can guess at where some of the extra meat will come from.  From what’s been revealed of casting, it appears we’ll be privy to Gandalf’s sidequest to Dol Guldur with the White Council.  So whereas in the book Gandalf simply disappears for several chapters, here the movie will follow along with his adventures.  And I’m sure most of the third film will be the Battle of Five Armies, whether or not Bilbo is awake for it.

  • Madhabmatics

     All will be forgiven if they interlace the story of Turin Turambar in there somewhere.

  • In the Library of Congress Classification system, the Bible is under Class “BS”.

  • Steve Morrison

    They can’t use anything from the Silmarillion, since they only have rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But the latter has usable material in the appendices.

  • Tonio

    With two posters making the same reference or joke, is there an anti-theist equivalent of an Answers in Genesis repository of canned ripostes somewhere?

  • Magic_Cracker

    Mmmm …. canned riposte! /homer

  • Pat B

    I can see a 3-movie version of the Hobbit, the same way I could see a 12-movie version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; if you don’t cut anything out, convert every scene 1:1 from the book to the screen, yeah they could absolutely fill the running times they want.

    But it’s not a service to the book to adapt it that closely. One of the reasons I loved the LotR movies is that even as a huge Tolkien nerd I knew that most of the changes were for the better. I would have sat though it no matter how long it would be, the same way I slogged through the Silmarillion (twice… what a waste of my life), but it was better in a distilled polished form.

    On the Bible Genre stuff; most of my favorite bits, at least in terms of entertainment value, wound up in the apocrypha. Enoch becoming Metatron; a human rising to become the literal “Lesser Yaweh.” The whole Watchers / Nephilim thing, which is just a cool concept. Lilith as Adam’s first wife, a co-creation rather than a subordinate being, being cast out and turning to evil because she wanted to ride cowgirl. All of the weird angelic hierarchies and keys of demonology that got put together. It’s all very metal.

  • Pat B

    My guess is that it’s like people who post “First!”; everyone things their “witty observation” is funny and original, everyone else just sighs and keeps going.

  • Twig

    Happy gorillas.  Because a few threads ago we discussed animals, feelings and such.  Also because the gorillas are happy.

  • AnonymousSam

    FWIW, it’s true – it is classified under BS. And that means pretty much squat.

    B is Philosophy, BC is Logic, BD is Speculative Philosophy, BF is Psychology, Parapsychology and Occult Sciences, BH is Aesthetics, BJ is Ethics and Social Etiquette, BL is Religions, Mythology and Rationalism, BM is Judaism, BP is Islam, BQ is Buddhism, BR is Christianity, BS is the Bible, BT is Doctrinal Theology, BV is Practical Theology, BX is Christian Denominations.

    There are plenty of jokes to be made in there and none of them are funny twice.

  • the Times makes factual claims that it attempts to support and to confirm through investigation


  • I’ve heard Terry Brooks say he doesn’t write fantasy, he writes nonfiction about elves and dwarves…..

  • I am thrilled with the expansion of The Hobbit into a trilogy, because that means everything can be put in it, and more besides, and I liked the “more besides” in Jackson’s LOTR movies, so I see no reason to think I won’t like it in The Hobbit. I haven’t seen a movie in a theatre for a very long time because I hate the Hollywood system, with whom it punishes and whom it rewards, but I can’t wait for these three. More of what I like? Yes please.

  • PJ Evans

    Thus if you were waiting in line at the store and you saw a headline
    reporting that “Obama Meets With Space Aliens,” you would react
    differently if that headline were in the Weekly World News than you would if it were in The New York Times.

    If it’s in the National Enquirer, there might be a grain of something resembling truth in it, but if it’s in the Globe, it’s a lie.

  • AnonymousSam

    I think if it were anyone other than Peter Jackson, I’d be among those ready to throw things at the computer monitor. With how ridiculously good his adaptions of the original trilogy were, though, I’m more than willing to give him a shot.

    ‘Cause one has to acknowledge that he changed a lot of how events played through in the series — probably for the better. I found the original writing rather bland and unsuspenseful, but the movies mixed up elements and added tension where previously there had been none, which made them better all around IMO.

  • And another thing: if there are three of them, maybe they’ll each be less than two hours long. Most movies are way the heck too long these days.

  • AnonymousSam

    I don’t really mind a long movie, but it depends entirely on what content is making it long. There’ve been times when I’ve wanted to scream at the editors for cutting out material from a film for the sake of brevity. I’d rather spend three hours (or longer) watching proper character development than watch two hours of rushed subplots and a romance that sparks up less than 6 hours since the characters met.

    If the film focuses on action though? Meh. I don’t think there’s any way I could watch more than two hours of the average action movie without starting to nod off. I can turn my brain off for awhile and watch decent choreography, martial arts and firearm stunts, but… you know, brain, turned off, the consequences are pretty logical.

    .. And for some reason, I abruptly find myself wondering if Brandon Sanderson will ever write the Mistborn film for which he obtained the option.

  • vsm

    It’s been almost ten years since The Return of the King, though, and his work in the meantime hasn’t been all that impressive. I’m kind of sad he made those Ring movies in the first place, really. Respectability does not suite the man who directed such classics as Bad Taste and Braindead.

  • reynard61

    “Bookstores and libraries help us by separating texts by genre — fiction over there, history over there, biography there, and so on.”

    Then please explain why such books as Dubya’s Decision Points and Dick Cheney’s In My Time keep ending up in the non-Fiction sections of bookstores and libraries! Everyone (well; anyone who’s still grounded in Reality)*knows* that books like these are merely either attempts at revisionist history (Bush’s book) or an effort to spin a bad image into virtuous gold. (Cheney’s book.) It’s gotten so that I’m not sure whether bookstores and libraries can tell the difference between Fiction and non-Fiction anymore.

  • Tonio

    While one could make a good case that The Hobbit might support a trilogy, my objection is that this is apparently being done not for artistic reasons but for financial ones.

  • AnonymousSam

    I write pretty terrible Christian fiction, but that hasn’t stopped me from occasionally trying. On the other hand, my fantasy has been praised by everyone who’s ever read it , so apparently that indicates that I have a niche that works and one that doesn’t. The difference between me and Peter Jackson is that millionaire film directors with clout and antsy, money-hungry producers (who can be said to have greater influence on a movie than the writers and directors combined) stand a far higher chance of getting their out-niche work made into a public spectacle than amateur writers.

  • lokimotive

    I’m a cataloging/metadata librarian working at academic institutions (meaning LC) and I can assure you that those classifications are ALWAYS funny.

  • vsm

     The thing is, Peter Jackson wasn’t a one-sided filmmaker. He’s succeeded at horror-comedy, epic fantasy, queer drama, mockumentary and puppet black comedy parody, always with creative use of special effects. Going from all that to King Kong or that one film whose name I’ve forgotten shouldn’t have been all that difficult. But hey, I hope the Hobbit films are good, even if I’m skeptical.

  • PJ Evans

     FWIW, my opinion is that books like those belong under ‘fiction’, or possibly ‘humor’. Almost every book by a politician will fit in those two.

  • But Melville Dewey invented the Dewey Decimal system to help people find books in a library!

    (Seriously, if you weren’t fortunate enough to study library science in public school in the mid 1980s, check out Tomes and Talismans, possibly the most mind-melting made-for-public-tv single-topic educational post-apocalyptic children’s show ever made by Mississippi Public Television. Because all of those adjectives are true.)

  • swbarnes2

    You need to figure out what kind of books these are because unless you know what kind of book you’re reading, you won’t know how to read it.

    So when I read about the Fall, and the Flood, and the plagues, and Job, am I supposed to be reading a kind of book that tells me accurate things about God and the kinds of things God does, and why God does those things?  How do I determine that?

    When I read about virgin births, and water turning into wine, and people walking on water, how do I determine if that’s the kind of book that’s accurately describing things that happened?    When I read John 3:16, am I supposed to read that as an accurate statement of what God is like?  How do I determine that?

  • AnonymousSam

    Honestly? You don’t have to. What matters more is what you take home from reading it. Progressive Christianity points at 1 John 4:7-21 and says “This is the point. This is the bottom line. Let other people try and decide whether the sister-wive narratives and the flood were real or fiction, this part is real to me.”

  • Dan Audy

    I like them.  Nothing however compares to the scene I saw with gorillas at the Calgary Zoo.  There was a big old male gorilla with all the scary appearance that they can pull off and he was playing with a baby gorilla about the size of my 4 year old (though lankier).  The baby gorilla was climbing on him and he gently pushed him over onto his back, then the baby would start getting back up and the male would reach out and push him over with a single finger as he was steadying his balance and they repeated this routine for about 15 rounds while the baby gorilla is hyperventilating as it is doing tiny gorilla laughs as this game keeps working it up.  Then the male slowly rolls him over and over down a gentle slope stopping every couple rotations to tickle the baby.  When the finally got the the bottom the baby sat up and leaned on the male for a minute while he recovered and then started clambering again.  The male picked him up and lay on his back placing him on his rear hands while bouncing the baby up and down to squeals of delight.

    It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had with primates and was so intensely human that at that moment I could swear they could talk because I could fill in the entire dialogue from how I played those exact same games with my son.

  • Shallot

     O.O  Ross, I could hug you right now.  I remember watching this in early elementary school, but didn’t know what it was called.  One scene still pops into my head, what, twenty-five years later?  One of the future people/aliens is foraging for food, with the radio assistance of his friends and the time-displaced librarian back at the bookmobile.  He’s examining a watermelon, trying to figure out what kind of nut it is based on his reference books.

    They just don’t make TV like that nowadays.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I agree with ya’ll. 2 parts I could see, but 3…It better be spectacular. 

  • Baby_Raptor

    I don’t know if a 12 movie LotR is amazing or terrifying. 

  • vsm

     I think it’s by far the best thing Tolkien ever wrote.

  • The_L1985

     Well, it’s hard to classify everything in as little numerical space as Dewey allows for.

    Personally, I like the Dewey system just fine, but that’s mainly because a) I’m used to it, and b) I tend to gravitate towards odd-sounding sociological texts and non-Christian religious books anyway.

  • The_L1985

     Sure.  It’s one part “fairy sky daddy” and “Invisible Pink Unicorn,”  one part “Do you fear black cats, too?”  and one part “I am much smarter because I am an atheist.”

    Anti-theists are annoyingly predictable.

  • The_L1985

     Is that your way of asking for Ethics and Social Etiquette, or am I being too crude in my interpretation?

    OK, OK, I’ll stop.

  • Ross Thompson

    BV is Practical Theology

    I managed to read that as “Piratical Theology”…

  • LouisDoench

     I’ve read the Silmarillion like 4 times… there must be something wrong with me. ;)

  • LouisDoench

     Of course everyone thinks their “witty observation” is funny and original. That’s how wit works. People who keep their observations to themselves are rarely if ever considered witty.  There is always the risk of finding oneself less original than one at first thought, because its a big world full of brilliant people.  That is not an excuse to hold back.

    The first time… ;)

  • LouisDoench

     As a Tolkien nerd of the first order I completely agree.  My most vivid fantasy is Tolkein being the Final Jeopardy question and me calmly betting all of my money.