In an earlier post, I covered using the Dewey Decimal Classification system for organizing your nonfiction books. If you have a lot of nonfiction books in your collection, reading that post is the first step. If more than thirty of your books belong in literature, read on. This post will give you guidance on how a library would shelve the literature books in your collection.
The literature section in the DDC may irritate some readers. Modern readers might be surprised that the majority of the classification numbers are devoted to the literature of Europe and North America. In 1876 when Melvil Dewey created the system, American and European scholars had Eurocentric views of the world. This is why they are given so much space.
If you are annoyed by this section of the system and would like to come up with your own method of classification, please feel free to. Your home collection is yours to do with as you’d like.
This section is sometimes called belles-lettres and it includes rhetoric and literary criticism. Rhetoric discusses the various factors involved in writing effectively. Criticism is not a negative evaluation of the writing. Instead, it is a discussion of the themes, elements, symbolism, and techniques in a writer’s work, or in a particular piece of writing. Criticism can be an art form of its own.
Fiction novels and short stories can be shelved here, but they are generally placed in sections of their own unless they are included in works of criticism relating to them. Since the majority of novels and short stories never get analyzed in more depth than reviews, they are not usually candidates for the literature section.
Each of the ten categories below potentially contains works of criticism, rhetoric, poetry, essays, speeches, letters, humor and satire, and miscellaneous writings (outlined in 810 below).
Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and concordances of literature go here. And so do serials, like “best of” type books that are published annually. An example would be The Best Sports Writing of 2019. Books on how to write are also found in this discipline.
Recommended Books in the general literature and rhetoric section:
- Waiting for the Barbarians by David Mendelsohn
- Thrice Told Tales: Three Mice Full of Writing Advice by Catherine Lewis
- MFA in a Box: A Why to Write a Book by John Rember
- Blood on the Stage: Milestone Plays of Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem by Amnon Kabatchnik
- Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
810-819 American literature in English
Works that were written in English and published in North America, Central America, South America, Hawaii, and other geographically associated islands like the Caribbean islands are shelved in the 810s. Note that American authors whose primary language is Spanish, Portuguese, Native, or any other, would not belong in this section, but would classified with the language of origin.
This subsection and all subsequent subsections include works of literature such as poetry, fiction, essays, speeches, letters, humor and satire, and miscellaneous writings published in those languages. Miscellaneous writings include, but are not limited to debates, epigrams, jokes, quotations, and riddles.
Recommended in American literature in English:
- Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan
- Lit by Mary Karr
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
- Adler on America’s Master Playwrights: Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, et. al. by Stella Adler
- The Facts of Life by Maureen Howard
- Edith Wharton: A Biography by R.W.B. Lewis
- Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
- Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
820-829 English and Old English (Anglo-Saxon) literature
Back to the collected works or biographies of authors mentioned in 800 above. If you have a book that was written in English about or by writers from Canada, The United States, any part of the British isles, and/or Australia, they would be shelved here in the 820s. This is because this section is for English from all over the world unless everything in it was written in America (in which case it belongs in the 810s. This can be confusing, so I hope it makes sense.
So this section includes literature from England and all of Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa, and any other part of the world outside the Americas, where people write and publish in English.
It also includes works written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon like poetry, Caedmon, Beowulf, Cynewulf, and prose literature.
Recommended books in English and Old English:
- The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
- Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 by Richard Holmes
- Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom
- The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
- Thomas Carlyle: A Biography by Fred Kaplan
- Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann
- Beowulf: A New Translation by Seamus Heaney
830-839 German literature and literature of related languages
All the literature that was written in German, Alsatian, Franconian, Pennsylvania Dutch, and the Swiss-German dialects are shelved here. In addition, Yiddish, Frisian, Low German (Plattdeutsch), North Germanic (Nordic), East Scandinavian, Old Norse (Old Icelandic), Icelandic, Faroese, and East Germanic literature are here. In addition, it contains Netherlandish, Afrikaans, Dutch, Flemish, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian literature and all the variations of dialects of each.
Recommended books in German literature and literature of related languages:
- Last Essays by Thomas Mann
- The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss
- The Sagas of the Icelanders by Ornolfur Thorsson
- Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman
840-849 French literature and literature of related Romance languages
This section would be for French literature and literatures in Occitan, Catalan, Franco-Provençal and the Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocien, Limousin, and Provencal dialects.
Note that comprehensive works on Romance languages are shelved in this section. So if you had a collection of criticisms of French, Italian, and Spanish novels, they would be shelved here.
Recommended books from the literature of French and related languages:
- Victor Hugo: A Biography by Graham Robb
- Rimbaud: A Biography by Graham Robb
- Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
- Candide by Voltaire
- Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman
850-859 Literatures of Italian, Dalmatian, Romanian, Rhaetian, Sardinian, and Corsican languages
The heading above lists every type of literature included in the 850s. But if a book had French and Italian poetry, it would be shelved in the 840s.
Recommended books from Italian, Romanian, and related literature:
- The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
- The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
- Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino
860-869 Literature of Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician languages
In addition to the languages in the heading above, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) and Gallegan literature also go here. Most literature published in South and Central American countries would be shelved here as well.
Recommended books in Spanish and related literature:
- The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life by Gerald Martin
- Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
- Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life by Ian Gibson
870-879 Latin literature and literature of related Italic languages
Besides Latin, both the Sabellian languages and Osco-Umbrian language literature would be shelved here.
Note that works combining information about classic Latin and Greek should be shelved in the 880s.
Recommended books from Italic and Latin literature:
- Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Higlet
- Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes
- Modern Romance Literatures edited by Dorothy Curley and Arthur Curely
880-889 Classical Greek literature and literature of related Hellenic languages
Because the 870s and this subsection are both for ancient languages, the literature categories are a bit different from all the others. They both include Classical poetry, dramatic poetry and drama, epic poetry and fiction, lyric poetry, speeches, letters, humor and satire, and miscellaneous writings.
The modern Greek literature included in the 880s has the same categories as those in 810-860 and 890.
Recommended in Hellenic and Classical Greek literature:
- Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson
- Homer and the Heroic Tradition by Cedric H. Whitman
- The Odyssey by Nikos Kazantzakis
890-899 Literature of specific languages and language families
Every language, living and dead, in the rest of the world is included in this section. Please see the 490s in my blog post on language books to see the order in which they would be shelved.
Recommended books from other literature:
- The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
- The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee
- Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land by Amos Oz
- Dawn to the West by Donald Keene
- From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry edited by Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
You’ve organized your literature books
Once you have further subdivided your literature books, be sure to update any spreadsheets or card catalogs you may have made for them.
Do you have a favorite type of literature? Leave a comment below!