Lifelong Dewey

Reading through every Dewey Decimal section.

Month: December, 2011

016: Bizarre Books by Russell Ash and Brian Lake

016.082: Ash, Russell & Brian Lake. Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. 210 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-134665-1.

The 000s in the DDC bring us the catch-all sections–encyclopedias, bibligraphies, magazines, and newspapers. Besides being of great help to literary research, bibliographies can be a lot of fun. Readers everywhere love lists of oddities, including books that might actually be interesting. These collections are also good for pointing me towards books in other Dewey sections that I may have found barren of good reads.

In Bizarre Books, compilers Russell Ash and Brian lake bring us all the weird, wacky, and downright strange titles they’ve seen while working as booksellers. Below are the cream of the crop:

  • The Guide to Owning a Quaker Parrot by Gayle Soucek
  • Build Your Own Titanic by Adam Rose
  • A Study of Hospital Waitingt Lists in Cardiff, 1953-1954 by Fred Grundy
  • How to Cook Husbands by Elizabeth Strong Worthington
  • Little-Known Sisters of Well-Known Men by Sarah J. Pomeroy

This little book will help you realize why no person will ever be able to read everything out there. I was actually surprised to see a book I’ve been thinking about adding to my library (1587, A Year of No Significance). It just goes to show that one man’s weird in another man’s wonderful.

129: Spook by Mary Roach

129: Roach, Mary. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 295 pp. ISBN 978-0-393-32912-4.

The Dewey Decimal Classification, for all of its ease of use and formulaic predictability, is also very Christian-centric. The 200s are devoted to religion, but the non-Western religions are relegated to the 290s. Contrary to what you might believe, works on the origin and continuation of individual souls falls under philosophy (the 100s). This is because the soul is an object identified when human beings start to wonder where they come from and where they are going after death. It is more a question of consciousness than religious belief. That being said, there are numerous works on the existence and fate of one’s soul.

Mary Roach, known for her witty scientific investigations of human coitus (Bonk) and corporeal decomposition (Stiff), tries to get to the bottom of the soul question. Does it exist? Can it be quantified? What can science help us to understand about it? Her journeys take her to India to investigate alongside a reincarnation specialist. For there, she visits mediums, biologists, quantum physicists, “ectoplasm” experts, and near-death experience researchers. Since no one has provided conclusive evidence for souls and their nature, the researchers she visits have to be (by default) operating just outside of the normal sphere of science. The great thing about that is that they have to. No great research was ever lauded for staying inside the current mode of thinking. The experiments they are trying are slightly odd and cumbersome, but try to answer real questions.

Roach’s immediate skepticism is readily apparent in all of her encounters, but she is willing to keep a partially open mind (most of the time). It’s very hard to keep a straight face when you’re sitting in a class, learning how to become a medium for ghosts when you don’t have a firm hold of your own beliefs. Coming at this from the cold light of science is the rational thing to do. Her humor is brilliant, however. There were many times when I had to stifle laughter (in public) for fear being labeled “a nutter.”

I honestly think this book has something for everyone. If you whole-heartedly believe in the soul, then you should be excited to see that there are scientific minds at work trying to prove it. And if you don’t, then you can laugh and enjoy the blow-by-blow account of all the weird articles published by the Society of Psychical Research. After reading her earlier book Stiff, I am looking forward to her other two.

427: Wicked Good Words by Mim Harrison

427.973: Harrison, Mim. Wicked Good Words: From Johnnycakes to Jug Handles, A Roundup of America’s Regionalisms. New York: Perigee, 2011. 166 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-53676-2.

One of the hardest subjects to read about is language. These books tend to be stuffy timelines of influences and subject-verb constructions that are as soporific as C-SPAN. The 400s (language) are full of these duds. One of the serendipitous by-products of this problem is that when a good book on language comes out, it seems that much better than its counterparts.

Mim Harrison’s Wicked Good Words is a member of the second group. First off, if you’re going to put together a book of zany regional colloquialisms, it helps to be named Mim. Second off, some of these come way out of left field.

Her book is appropriately sectioned by region. The chapter on New England has the prerequisite “wicked” (for “good”), but also contains “fence viewer” (a person with a cushy, unnecessary job) and “American chop suey” (a mixture of  macaroni noodles, ground beef, and tomato sauce). Harrison goes through the Midwest, the South, the Southwest, and so on. Some of the entries make a lot of sense, but others take a more tortuous historical route to the present. Harrison

Also hidden among the regional constructions are asides on a single trope. She has a couple of pages on American greetings (“Hi”, “Howdy”, “Hey!”) and what to call a carbonated beverage (“pop”, “soda”, “tonic”, etc.). There’s even three pages on death eupemisms (“bought the farm”, “gone to Boot Hill”, “passed”).

All in all, it’s a fun book that you can read in a couple of hours. It can also double a decent bathroom reader.

919: The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna

919: Kavenna, Joanna. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule. New York: Viking, 2006. 291 pp. ISBN 0-670-03473-8.

For the first book, we start with a number way down at the bottom (or end) of the listing. The 900s cover geography and history; 910s specifically cover geography and travel books. Since the DDC is so wonderfully predictable, and countries or areas of the world are always put in order the same way, the last section is always the catch-all for “other parts of the world”. 499 is languages of other parts of the world, 319 is general collection of statistics of other parts of the world. And here, 919 is geography and travel in other parts of the world.

Pytheas was an ancient Greek geographer and explorer. He made his way from Greece, out of the Mediterranean Sea, up the coast to Europe, and circumnavigated Britain. In his travels around Britain, he mentioned a land named Thule, an interesting land where the sun sets and semi-mythical occurrences abound. Unfortunately, his navigational journals do not give modern-day explorers much certainty as to where Thule was, so throughout the ages, explorers have sought out clues to its location in an effort to reconnect with the men of the past.

Joanna Kavenna goes on such a quest. Her book, The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, is a journey through all the places (and events) supposed to be Thule. One day, while contemplating her life in London, she decides to quit and seek out the Arctic adventure she’d dreamed about in her youth. Her path takes her from Scotland to Shetland to Iceland to Norway. From there, she goes to Estonia, then to Greenland, and lastly to Svalbard.

At each locale, she dutifully records her impressions of the landscape and the people, sometimes assuming a more cynical tone than most. She takes the writings of past explorers with her and gives the reader a wonderful sense of adventure that Sir Richard Burton and Fridtjof Nansen experiences on their journeys to the north.

There are distractions, however. Kavenna spends, I think, a bit too much time on the Thule Society, its role in the formation of the Nazi Party, and the after-effects of Nazi social policies in Norway. While this does complete the catalog of all things and places named Thule, it has very little to do with geography and even less to do with Thule itself. She even makes a brief pit stop at Thule Air Base in Greenland to round out her collection even though it’s just a military base and she takes time away from those who are trying to keep their eyes on ballistic missile warning systems.

On the whole, the reader gets a good sense of the pure emptiness and sublime nature of life and lands above the Arctic circle.

On with the journey…

What is it?

So…what do I mean by “Lifelong Dewey”? Well, I’m a librarian by education, but an analyst by occupation, which mean that I have a compulsive urge to put books (and everything else) in order and an irrepressible need to ensure that all people have access to whatever information they desire, regardless of the circumstances. We librarians have a code of ethics, you know.

But, what about the Dewey part? Being a librarian comes hand in hand with being an avid reader. I’ve yet to meet a professional (or para-professional) librarian who didn’t already have a love of books and all things readable. Part of the training means understanding the two basic types of library classification schemes. First, there’s the Library of Congress Classification. If you’ve come from a large university, you’ve seen it. It looks something like this: PS3537.T4753 Z76535 1994. The PS is for American literature and the rest further breaks it down by subject and sub-subject and author. This one is for an annotated secondary bibliography of works concerning the American poet Wallace Stevens (my favorite poet).

Then, comes the Dewey Decimal Classification. This one is more for public libraries and smaller institutional libraries (with broad collections). My undergraduate work was at Hiram College (pop. 1,200) and they used DDC. By contrast, my post-graduate work was at Kent State–they used LCC. So, I’ve seen them both in action. I’m much more partial to Dewey. So much so that I own a complete unabridged set of the 22nd edition DDC. It’s more harmonious and internally understandable. If you know that the suffix for history is -09, then 109 is history of philosophy, and 709 is history of art, and 509 is history of science. It works the other way, too. Anything starting with 5 is science-related. 551 is natural science, 599 is mammal science, 521 is celestial mechanics. It even compounds properly–540 is general chemistry and 540.9 is history of general chemists and chemistry.

It has its foibles, though. It’s very white-centric and Christian-centric. A lot of the African and Polynesian subject areas get crammed into little sections of the code. You just have to accept that it’s a bit ethnocentric and move on.

The meaning of this blog is to read and write about a book in every section of the DDC. The Dewey numbers go from 000 to 999. Each hundred is called a class, each ten is called a division, and each single digit is called a section. Sections, consequently, are divided into subsections and sub-subsections (almost ad infinitum). The numbers can, in extreme cases, go on for a while given certain constructions and suffixes allowable by the scheme. For instance, I have a book about a museum collection of 18th century American Rococo furniture and decorations. Its number is 745.40974090330747471. This breaks down as follows: 745 is decorative arts, 754.4 is pure and applied design and decoration, -09 means history, -74 then means Northeastern US, another -09033 for the 1700s. Tack on the -074 because of the museum thing, and finally a -7471 for New York (it’s the Met). Voila! A wonderfully complex but completely descriptive rendering of the subject of the book.

My goal, when all of this is done, is to have read (and reported on) a book in each DDC section (in the above case–745). By my count, the DDC 22 has 904 sections (96 of the possible 1,000 are unused or unassigned). There are some maddening sections, like the 310s, which is supposed to be for collections of general statistics of sections of the world. That’s going to be tedious, but a goal is a goal.

Here we go.