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
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