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Sunday Salon: On Labelling Books

June 26, 2011

The Sunday Salon.com
Recently, I decided it was about time I started using LibraryThing as my default to-be-read list. So I instituted a new system, in which I just bookmark any posts/websites/library catalogue records that catch my eye, popping them into a special folder. Then, when I’m in the mood for my audiobook, I’ll listen and go through the links, adding them to my LT wish list. This has worked remarkably well, and I wish I’d started it years ago! Oh well, live and learn. Anyway, this provided a catalyst for sorting out how to label my reads: on LT, although it’s slightly unwieldy, I include the author’s nationality and, if relevant, the blog I heard about it from. Other than that, I needed to decide how to distinguish the fiction and nonfiction. At first, I thought I’d get whimsically specific, including labels like ‘ghosts’ (my equivalent of Anne Fadiman’s Arctic explorers shelf) or ‘natural history.’ But then I realised how unwieldy all of those labels would eventually become, especially in my list-obsessive desire to categorise everything. So I approached it from the other side: when I’m choosing a book to read, what ‘types’ of books do I crave? That way, my wish list would actually work for me and facilitate my various reading moods.


photo credit

I ended up with five fiction categories (I just copied & pasted the descriptions from my review directories page): Fiction Written Before 1950 (essentially, classics but without the baggage that label carries for some), Suspense Fiction (a book whose plot is a major focus and/or has a frightening atmosphere, e.g. mysteries, thrillers, horror, gothic, etc.), Imaginative Fiction (a book that includes elements you don’t encounter in everyday life, e.g. high fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism, sci-fi, etc.), Historical Fiction (a book set at least a generation earlier than the author writing it, which includes classics such as Les Miserables), and Modern Fiction (a book written in 1950 or later without any imaginative, historical, or suspenseful elements.). The latter is obviously more a catch-all tag than anything, but these broadly cover my favourite ‘styles’ of fiction.

For non-fiction, I borrowed inspiration from the way my college divided its majors (each big group had its own building) and then added one: Humanities (topics such as history, art, philosophy, religion, and literature, aka ‘books about books’), Social Sciences (topics such as international relations, anthropology, economics, and social justice), Natural Sciences (topics such as biology, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine), and Personal Nonfiction (nonfiction written primarily from the author’s subjective viewpoint, such as memoirs and travelogues). That last one is important for me; I find memoirs to be a hazy area in between fiction and nonfiction anyway.


photo credit

And then, I was so delighted with my new, svelte labelling system that I decided to bring it over to my blog! Of course, anyone subscribed via a feed reader knows that, since my changes to posts’ categories resulted in many of them being ‘published’ at once in my feed. This was embarrassing, but still worth it: every time I look at my categories list now to label a post, I smile. My old categories list arose randomly (organically would be more charitable) over time, and its lack of governing logic showed. Now, the categories reflect my actual approach to reading: sometimes I’m in the mood for a natural science book, other times I’m craving some imaginative fiction. The fiction categories specifically were inspired more by ‘feeling’ than by traditional genres, which works well for me since I find the divide between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction absurd. And it’s easy to include books in more than one category; for instance Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell would be both historical and imaginative. The point is: I feel these labels work for me and facilitate my reading without forcing any books into too-constrictive categories. And they make adding books to my wish list (currently at four hundred thirty-three titles) even more fun! And there’s still room for a whim or two; on the blog I saved my old women’s studies category, which I plan on adding to my LT system. And I’m sure a ‘ghost’ category will appear one of these days as well. ;)

Do you use categories/tags/etc. on your blog or when cataloguing your books? What approach do you take to them? What are your most-used labels?

And now on to the books I’ve read this week that I won’t be able to do full posts on…as you can see, I’m still reading up a storm!

Read Becoming a Heroine by Rachel Brownstein if…you’re interested in the relationship between woman and novels and/or you enjoy reading smart literary analyses of classics.

Read The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot if…you don’t have the time for a reread of Middlemarch, enjoy atypical Victorian heroines, are drawn towards sharp portrayals of the ills of patriarchy, and don’t mind a discordant ending.

Read Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan if…you have a soft spot for classic coming-of-age schoolboy stories and you’re interested to see this British staple translated in one of its colonies.

Read Hijas Americanas by Rosie Molinary if…you’re a Latina living in the US and curious about your fellow Latinas and/or in need of encouragement.

Read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters if…you’re in the mood for a rich, gothic ghost story that lends itself to multiple readings.

Read Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk by Boris Akunin if…you’re not easily offended by gender stereotypes and a ‘maybe she wants it’ attempted rape scene or if you don’t mind your murder mysteries completely muddled.

Read The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart if…you’re curious about early 20th century mysteries or have a soft spot for spinster sleuth/narrators and aren’t bothered by all the devices of a classic potboiler.

Read The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins if…you love Collins, or Victorian sensationalism, or are collecting ‘stories by Brits set in Venice’ but want a quick taste instead of an epic read (it’s only 150 pages long).

Read Inheritance by Lan Samantha Chang if…you’re curious to see how every stereotype possible of a Chinese American woman writing historical fiction set in 20th century China can fit in one story.

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53 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2011 7:07 am

    I’ve put together a categorizing scheme on LT that’s similar to yours, except I don’t use any sorts of genre tags. I focus more on time periods and author nationalities. I really like how easy tagging is on LT. That’s the big advantage it has over Goodreads, which has a clunkier tagging system. (GR works better for wishlisting for me, though. When I had my wishlist on LT, adding it to my library if I got a copy was awkward–but only because I wanted to catalog the edition I had/read, and switching editions proved to be a clunky process.)

    I’m interested in your comment that the ending of Mill on the Floss was discordant. As you know, I adore that book, and although I do think the ending was rushed, I thought the actual events seemed inevitable. Of course, I’ve read it twice now, and I picked up most of that foreshadowing on that second read. (I talked about it a little in my review, if you’re interested.)

    • June 26, 2011 4:08 pm

      *spoiler warning for any other readers*

      Now that that’s out of the way! ;) I definitely found a lot of foreshadowing, so in a certain sense I ‘expected’ the ending, and once Maggie ‘fell,’ I knew she’d die. However, after all of Eliot’s investment in building up Maggie as a strong, independent young woman (i.e. she went into service rather than depend on her brother after he was so offensive), I found the whole Maggie-Stephen storyline completely unconvincing. Once they float down the river, Eliot lost me; it just required too much suspension of disbelief. And I felt like the soap opera/Victorian sensationalist aspect cheapened the novel and what Eliot was trying to accomplish. I went into it not knowing anything about the plotline, and so I think the first half made me expect a different kind of story.

      • June 26, 2011 6:11 pm

        Ah, I guess I read Maggie as more internally conflicted than you did. At her core, she is independent, but she sometimes lets society convince her that her way isn’t the right way, which could read like inconsistency. That conflict is an aspect of Maggie that I could really relate to, because I was much the same for many years, and that’s one reason I love this book so much.

      • June 28, 2011 1:46 pm

        I can see that Maggie is torn between societal expectations and being true to herself, but I just didn’t see how EITHER could have gotten her into that boat with Stephen. She didn’t want to go, society didn’t want her to go, and it just didn’t feel organic to me at all.

        But I’m glad you get so much more out of it than I did! :)

  2. June 26, 2011 7:56 am

    I use kind of that same approach on my TBR list! I’ve divided it into categories, not terribly dissimilar from yours. I do think my mainstream fiction list is too unwieldy, but I haven’t figured out a sensible way of breaking it down. I want to split it up between fiction I, like, sort of feel I should read, and fiction I desperately want to read. But that seems mean.

    • June 26, 2011 4:09 pm

      Books don’t have feelings! That sounds like a good split for you. ;) For me, since I’m tagging author nationality, I’ll be able to sort modern fiction by international stuff. I don’t actually read much modern US/UK fic that doesn’t have any other aspects.

  3. June 26, 2011 8:17 am

    Another great list of reads. I have a rather unwieldy list of tags on LT I have to admit, though I (lazily) don’t tag until after I’ve read a book. My wishlist is still everything else which can be frustrating! I tag year read, Fiction or Non-fiction, country, used to put the Dewey Decimal and LC numbers as well, and then just random tags that I feel fit from the story. I really should get better at it!

    • June 26, 2011 4:10 pm

      I don’t think that’s lazy! I’m only using LT for my TBR list, not my ‘read’ or even ‘owned (I do want to add the books I own when I get them all unpacked), so that’s why I’m using labels! Your system sounds like fun. :)

  4. June 26, 2011 8:22 am

    I am not a good book labeler. (sp?) The categories on my blog came into being completely randomly, as your old ones did, and I’ve been too lazy to update them in any reasonable way. I definitely should, though… That will be a project for when I have a staycation or something.

    Also, you completely crack me up with your descriptions of the books you didn’t like! I’m just imagining what a scathing, longer review of them would sound like… LOL

    • June 26, 2011 4:12 pm

      I think ‘labelling’ is the British spelling and ‘labeling’ is the American one, so you’re good! :) If you do need to update your categories, it doesn’t actually take that long in WP; let me know and I’ll tell you how to do it!

      It’s funny, because I almost never do longer reviews of books I don’t like, just because I’d rather spend the time pushing books I loved. But I guess I do come up pretty harsh in just one sentence! No room for diplomatic cushioning. ;)

  5. June 26, 2011 9:35 am

    I like your system a lot Eva! I’m getting the urge to get a catalog of my books together, and I think I’m going to use LT from that, since I like the tagging a lot better than Goodreads. But I want a system in place first so I’m not just adding things willy-nilly. I may borrow from this scheme once I sit down and think about it more!

    • June 26, 2011 4:12 pm

      The tagging is part of why I went with LT over Goodreads! Borrow away, and I hope you do a post about the system you think up. :)

  6. June 26, 2011 9:47 am

    I’m pretty sure that my labeling is so broad as to no longer be useful! Alas….

    But your post has given me something to mull over and consider…thanks for sharing.

    Here’s MY SUNDAY SALON POST

    • June 26, 2011 4:12 pm

      Too broad? As in, only fiction and nonfiction?

  7. June 26, 2011 9:55 am

    Do you use categories/tags/etc. on your blog or when cataloguing your books? What approach do you take to them? What are your most-used labels?

    Yes, I use categories on my blog, but reading your post here, makes me feel guilty that I really need to reorganize them…and soon. Of course, that probably won’t happen as I’ll be distracted, catching up on reading Sunday Salon posts :P. Some day, some week, some month, some year…I’ll get to it. I also do use categories and labels on GoodReads with way too many. My most-used ones, though, are crime, fiction and mystery.

    • June 26, 2011 4:13 pm

      Don’t feel guilty! This was the first time I reorganised them in 4+ years I’ve been blogging. lol Yay for mysteries! :D

  8. June 26, 2011 11:01 am

    I really need to get better at labelling my books on LibraryThing. I think I started out with a system, but now I’m just not sure what to call things. I’m going to investigate your system and see if I can improve mine!

    • June 26, 2011 4:14 pm

      I feel comforted that I have one now, although I’m sure as time goes on I’ll want to make changes!

  9. June 26, 2011 11:26 am

    Once you posted about your revisions to your review directories, I had to check them out. I’ve never used LibraryThing so I can’t imagine how the categories work over there but here, on your site, I love the revisions, and browsing the new categories for your thoughts and recommendations.

    I spent a couple months (from December to April) slowly redoing my Goodreads shelving system. The end result is a lot more categories than yours (besides the mandatory three of “to-read,” “currently-reading,” and “read,” I have more than 100 other shelves). I have tags for century of publication (e.g. “21st-century-lit,” “15th-century-lit,” etc.) as well as author’s ethnic origin (e.g. “british-lit,” “east-african lit,” “south-asian-lit,” etc.). I also have country tags for setting (fiction) or focus (nonfiction). Then there’s all the genre tags. Nonfiction also has a lot of different shelves (e.g. “social justice,” “science-health”, “history”, etc.). Finally, there are a few special tags to note areas of special interest to me (e.g. “race-studies,” “immigrant-narratives,” “nyrb”, “persephone-books”, etc.).

    At first glance, I think it looks unwieldy, but I love to organize things, so it works for me. The hardest decisions I’ve had to make, in reference to the system, has been defining “literature” and “historical fiction,” and I think I might redo at least the latter with something similar to your definition.

    • June 26, 2011 4:15 pm

      Thanks M: I’m glad the change makes browsing better! On LT, you can just sort your lists by tags, so it’s about the same as ‘categories’ here.

      I’m v impressed with your Goodreads system: that sounds like the kind of thing I’d ideally want, but I know I wouldn’t keep up with it over time! I’m jealous of your dedication. ;)

  10. June 26, 2011 11:29 am

    So, read the Akunin if I feel like stabbing myself in the eye, then?

    I love your organizational skillz.

    • June 26, 2011 4:16 pm

      Yeah! And what’s so frustrating about the Akunin is that I loved the first Sister Pelagia novel! So I was totally blindsided. Plus side? Can strike the rest of his books off my TBR list. ;)

  11. June 26, 2011 12:28 pm

    It probably reflects poorly on my character, Eva, but I’m loving the blunter, more up-front quality that your one-sentence reviews are bringing out! Now that you mention it I AM a bit curious about just how many stereotypes of female-penned Chinese-based historical fiction can fit into one book…but not curious enough to actually read the thing. :-D

    I have an elaborate tagging system on LT, but only for after I’ve read the books. (System includes tags for POV, major themes, era of publication, nationality, and then special tags for things like unreliable narrators, framing devices, first-person narrators who are telling a story about another person, etc.) Books I own but have not yet read are just tagged toberead plus their author gender and nationality. Books I don’t own but want to read are totally separate, in a Powell’s wish list that’s not organized in any way whatsoever, LOL!

    • June 26, 2011 4:17 pm

      Heehee: I’m much more sarcastic in person than in blogland, and I guess that shows when I’m limiting my typing! Glad to amuse you, and let’s just hope the author doesn’t pop by. ;)

      I have yet to try adding the books I’ve read to LT; I only started keeping a list in 2006, so I’m worried if I start entering them, I’ll be driven crazy trying to brainstorm every book I’ve ever read to add. I might anyway though!

      Your elaborate system sounds lovely: I just know I’m too lazy to keep up with something like that.

  12. June 26, 2011 12:39 pm

    Glad you found a system that works for you. My wish list books are all on
    Goodreads but I really need a more detailed way (like yours) to track them. If I did have things categorized it would be much easier for me when I go to the library or bookstore.

    • June 26, 2011 4:18 pm

      It’s definitely helpful when I’m picking library books! Of course, I’ve only been keeping it for a month-ish, so it doesn’t have nearly all of the books I’m interested in reading. Oh well!

  13. June 26, 2011 1:08 pm

    “if you don’t have time to reread Middlemarch.” I love that. But isn’t that true for every book I read that isn’t Middlemarch?

    • June 26, 2011 4:19 pm

      Hehe: perhaps! But I was itching for some Eliot and not quite ready to commit to 1,000 pages. Now I suspect I’ll be rereading Middlemarch before the end of the year!

  14. June 26, 2011 2:14 pm

    I wish I could be as organised as all that. I haven’t updated my LT in a long while and I should really work on some sort of tagging system. I’ll save your post for inspiration when I do get around to it. Also, I’ve now put Becoming a Heroine on my wishlist :)

    • June 26, 2011 4:19 pm

      Becoming a Heroine was a v interesting read! I hope you can get your hands on a copy (it’s from the 80s), because I’d love to see your thoughts.

  15. June 26, 2011 5:57 pm

    I love your LT organization! I’m not near so organized; if I’m lucky I remember not only to add books but to tack on a tag or two. The broad categories are nice too. Labels can be so tricky, even if you don’t mind using them, but it seems like the way you’ve broken them down works nicely.

    I’ve got the Collins on my list–and I confess, as much for the Venice setting as for the fact that I’ve enjoyed the Collins I’ve read in the past. Now that I know it’s so short, I might even find time to read it!

    • June 28, 2011 1:59 pm

      It’s very short! However, the first half takes place in England, so you might miss Venice for awhile. ;) I’m assuming you’ve heard of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series?

      • June 28, 2011 3:01 pm

        Thank you, I’ve been trying to remember the name of that series for a while now! I’ve been wanting to read some crime fiction set in Italy, and I did come across a recommendation for Andrea Camilleri’s mysteries, but I knew there was a different series I’d heard of which was set in Venice. (I believe Camilleri’s books are set in Sicily.) Now I just need to find a series set in Florence (which is the Italian city I know best)!

  16. June 26, 2011 9:18 pm

    That Brownstein book looks awesome!

    • June 28, 2011 1:59 pm

      It was a fun read! It does closely analyse a few classics though, so if you haven’t read them and don’t want to know the whole plotline, you might want to wait on it.

  17. June 26, 2011 10:05 pm

    I have my books sort of categorized on the shelves, more along how we would do in the bookstores where i worked. I have a catalogue on the computer of the books I own, but if they can be categorized there I haven’t found out how yet! THat is mostly to give me a reference list of what I own, so I can see easily if I am missing a book in a series or not. However, our main computer died, so I have to wait to use this list until we have a new one. I really liked your categories!

    I have The Little Stranger and have to read it! and the Brownstein looks very interesting too.

    I laughed at your 400 + books wanted list, since i have 16 pages on Amazon filled with books I want! lol

    • June 28, 2011 2:00 pm

      Remember I’m justing starting to keep my TBR list on LT! I’m sure it’ll expand exponentially over time. ;) I consider it a ‘pool’ rather than a ‘must read’ thing, though, so the larger it gets the happier I am. lol

  18. June 27, 2011 7:03 am

    I don’t do tags on LT. IT’s my library of what I own. So I categorize by which shelf I keep the book on. With a category for books I have reviewed that I don’t own. I love how I can organize the books by Dewey Decimal number or LOC. I like to play with that.

    On the other hand, I keep a spreadsheet of books I have read, what country the author is from, what year it was read, etc.

    My TBR books lately I’ve been keeping on my library website “for later” list. That’s the ones I don’t own yet. It’s not the best organization, but I can easily request from library if I want.

    I’m so sorry to hear Mill on the Floss has a disappointing ending. I have that on my “next” shelf — for after I finish No Name.

    • June 28, 2011 2:02 pm

      That makes sense Rebecca! I haven’t added books I own to LT yet: they’re still not all unpacked! I just added my books read to my account; I only started keeping tack in 2006, and I don’t keep a ton of details (although a this point, my books read page records year published & translator if applicable in addition to title & author), but it’s fun to see all the covers.

      Several bloggers on Twitter said Mill on the Floss was their favourite Eliot, so you might be in that camp!

  19. June 27, 2011 8:25 am

    Great idea! I’ve never really thought about using tags anywhere. I do have tags on all my blog book reviews, with author surname and decade of publication, but they’re invisible ones – I only use them for the purposes of creating links.

    • June 28, 2011 2:03 pm

      Invisible tags would come in such handy! I wonder if that’s a blogspot only thing…I could tag by region/nationality; it’d help me greatly.

  20. June 27, 2011 8:28 am

    I love organising my books, whether it be physically on the shelves or on LibraryThing. I have all my books tagged by decade of original publication to give me a vague idea of what I’m in for, but other than that I only add categories after I’ve read them. I go for country of setting, genre and important themes, but I keep adding more. It’s an addiction almost as compulsive as book buying!

    • June 28, 2011 2:04 pm

      I’m trying to decide how I’ll organise my books this time: before I moved I had them arranged by colour, which worked great for me. But now my shelves are in the guestroom my mother decorated, and a rainbow-style wouldn’t really look great in there. So we’ll see! :)

  21. June 27, 2011 2:01 pm

    I think you might have convinced me to move the not-owned part of my TBR over to LibraryThing. I already have my TBR from my own shelves on there but then also have a spreadsheet for library/future purchase books and it never gets updated and I frequently forget to look at it. I need to move everything to one spot.

    I’m still struggling to find the right labeling system for my books. I guess it’s just something else for me to think about when I finally have some free time!

    • June 28, 2011 2:05 pm

      I’m trying to move everything to one spot for LT, but I’m annoyed that I have to try to find the TBR books I randomly stored in e-mail or whatever since I’ve begun blogging! lol I used to have a gorgeous spreadsheet w tons of info I could sort by, but my computer crashed and I lost it.

  22. June 28, 2011 6:30 pm

    I’m liking these pithy one-line reviews, especially the last one on this post. Like Emily posted above, it makes me curious but not enough to read it.

    I barely use categories at all on my blog. My Goodreads to-read list is enormous and I once thought of applying categories to them, but I didn’t like completed books and to-read books sharing the same categories, so only completed books get tagged with categories. I go to the categories in Goodreads when someone is asking for a recommendation in a type of genre.

    • July 1, 2011 4:41 pm

      Thanks Christy! Yeah: I think if I already had a huge list of TBR on LT, I probably wouldn’t have introduced tags, hehe. For instance, I’ve imported by ‘books read’ from 2006-present to LT, but I don’t bother tagging them; I don’t see the point (for me! I see it would help others!).

  23. July 1, 2011 12:09 pm

    Just stopping by to tell you how wonderful your blog is. So very informative, I will be visiting often for referrals to books, I already made a small list of books to buy or download to my nook.
    Thank-you Eva

    • July 1, 2011 4:41 pm

      Thank you Sylvie-Madeleine for visiting and taking the time to leave such a lovely comment! :)

  24. July 4, 2011 7:47 am

    I just label my GR books like Adult Fiction, Adult Nonfiction, Teen Fiction, Teen Nonfiction, Childrens Fiction, Childrens Nonfiction and a few others like picture books, read during readathon (which I don’t really use anymore) and two publishers I review for. I do put books I want to read there but I don’t only have my wish list there, although I probably should. I can’t even find time to get all the books I read on there.

    I like your categories though. I’ve changed my blog tags around a few times but I may do something similar to minimize how many there are.

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