Five Books That Defy Categorization

We're becoming more and more wedded to genres: labeling books as mystery, literary fiction, Western chick-lit, travel, American history and so on, while expecting them to live up to expectations and abide by boundaries.

But some of my favorite books defy easy pigeonholing -- and may be the better for it.


1. The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning (1869).
No doubt about it - this is poetry, taken to great lengths. But it's a narrative poem about a murder and subsequent trial in medieval Florence that strongly resembles a novel, and one far ahead of its time. The closest 20th-century analogue is probably "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa's classic film about a killing as seen by various witnesses and participants. Browning pioneered that technique in this work, which might be called a novel in verse form told from multiple viewpoints.

2. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West (1941).
Originally published in two volumes, this 1,200-page masterpiece has the lineaments of a travel book on what became (but did not remain) Yugoslavia, but it is much more. One of its many set-pieces, for example, is a thrilling 30-page history of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo - the catalyst for World War I. The book also partakes of philosophy, psychology, political science and art criticism, all laid out in West's scintillating prose.

3. The Devils of Loudun, by Aldous Huxley (1952).
This is ostensibly an account of a sensational 17th-century case in France, where a convent of nuns charged one of its confessors with being an agent of the devil. It's a lurid story, expertly told, but also a platform on which Huxley makes use of the decades he spent studying the world's religions and fashioning a personal creed.

4. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner (1954).
The literal-minded will want to call this a biography of the one-armed Civil War veteran who rafted down the Colorado River and went on to head the U.S. Geological Survey. But it's also a work of environmental philosophy in which what interests Stegner most about Powell is his visionary notion of how the West should be divided up - according to watersheds, as suited its dry climate, rather than by the squared-off surveying that had shaped the more temperate East. According to Stegner, Powell's failure to make himself heard (when he gave speeches warning Western farmers of the minimal rainfall they could expect to make do with year after year, they booed him) doomed the West to a "half-century of exploitation and waste."

5. Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean (1992).
Reviewing this superb book for The Post when it first came out, I compared it to Moby-Dick. That may sound like hyperbole, but I stand by it. Though less of a grab-bag than Melville's novel, this true story of a Montana wildfire and the 12 smoke jumpers killed by it embodies an obsession in which a wildfire becomes rather like the great white whale. Young Men and Fire is a model of journalistic fact-finding, a meditation on the nature of fire and a compelling story all rolled into one.

Please add your own nominations for memorable books that defy categorization.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Christian Pelusi |  May 1, 2008; 6:12 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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I would add Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." I don't know where to place it in a genre-sense, all I know is it pretty much blew my mind when I read it and I felt that I had journeyed through something important by the time I finished it.

Posted by: C | May 1, 2008 10:44 AM

Please add The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I heard her describe the book herself as "Jesuits in Space" - I could not put it down.

Posted by: Danielle | May 1, 2008 10:48 AM

In the same vein as Young Men and Fire, I think I would put Into Thin Air. It's part memoir, part adventure story, part meditation on people take this kind of risk.

Posted by: KLeewrite | May 1, 2008 11:04 AM

I guess it could be classified as humorous fiction, but I nominate (and love) "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole.

I guess to me it defies classification when you try to explain the plot to someone!

Posted by: CJB | May 1, 2008 11:14 AM

I would add The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide and illustrated by Edward Gorey. In elementary school I loved this children's book simply as a tale of a shrinking boy (even if I wondered what was up with Gorey's drawings).

As an adult I reread - and bought - it. It remains hilarious, but it also strikes a different, more somber tone about being ignored. In many ways, it is far more bewildering read as an adult.

I know that many children's books work on different levels when read by adults, but this book, its tone, its art, its view of human nature makes if even more multi-dimensional. I love this book.

Posted by: basil | May 1, 2008 5:08 PM

There are two books that come to my mind as genre defying: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jim Nisbet's Prelude to a Scream.

For those who have read Cloud Atlas, I don't need to elaborate on its elements: mystery, history, science fiction, romance, satire; it is at once a novel and a collection of short stories as well. It is all these things and more. If you have not read this book, you must, or you will not have fully lived.

A lesser known novel, perhaps, is Prelude to a Scream. This novel is a mystery, yes; but, also, it is satire (with humor that makes your average gallows humor look downright cheery), it is noir and a half, it is rife with hyperbole, and it is compelling in the manner of a fatal car wreck. Further, Nisbet does something really despicable to his reader(s): he creates a hate-love-hate relationship with the protaginist over the course of the narrative. Lastly, you don't fully understand the title until you read the last sentence of the book. This is a truly unique read and one you're not likely to ever forget.

Posted by: Jon Lauderbaugh | May 3, 2008 3:55 PM

William Carlos Williams' "In the American Grain" and Paul Metcalf's "Genoa".

Posted by: jm | May 5, 2008 1:11 AM

I like the idea of a category called something like children's books that also appeal to adults.

Posted by: dennis drabelle | May 6, 2008 11:40 AM

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