Categorizing books and the curious case of Sad Tropics

Reem Al-Kamali
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When Claude Lévi-Strauss published his book Tristes Tropicos (Sad Tropics) in 1955, critics were not sure how to categorize the book as it’s like a novel but it’s not exactly a novel. The book resembled travel literature but it was not that either. It looked like a scientific anthropological manuscript but it did not include any sources.

Some commented saying the book is thorough in its research in primitive races. However, he surprised them with his poetic and literary style. Despite that, scientists cautiously looked at his texts which are full of contemplation and they defended pure science. The French literary Prix Goncourt Awards categorized the book as a novel and awarded Strauss for it.


Anthropologist and psychologist Strauss traveled a lot to make discoveries as a researcher. He’s an adventurer by nature. He is interested in legends and has been influenced by them. He worked hard to learn more about them and research them.

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This is in addition to his interest in epics, geology, art, religions, plants and the wild thought that intersects with chemical magic and the metaphysical world.

He thus published many books but he did not allow categorizing Tristes Tropicos. He intentionally kept it outside any category. Strauss is well-known for his psychological writing structure that adopts a systematic research that relies on studying.

However, he did not adopt his usual anthropological and cultural approach when writing this book.

Categorizing books in libraries makes everything easier, and it’s normal for one to be very confused and lost if they are not properly categorized

Reem Al-Kamali

Ideas before they die

When Tristes Tropicos was first published, readers thought it has a lot of joy that’s based on sorrow through travelling to look for ideas before they die. The text was thus diverse, deep and significant for its combination of narrative literature, sociology, philosophy, myths, arts, poetry and sad irony.

One may ask aren’t some books rare and unexpected despite how real they are? Aren’t they mysterious despite their clarity? Are they as such because they do not follow the common style inherited by authors? Strauss went ahead and changed this style and we actually loved this change.

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Categorizing books in libraries makes everything easier, and it’s normal for one to be very confused and lost if they are not properly categorized.

Tristes Tropicos was harmonious despite the fact that it did not fall into one single category as it passionately delves into the mythology of primitive jungles before they’re lost and delves into man’s agony via Strauss’ skills as an explorer not as an academic.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Reem Al-Kamali is an Emirati author and journalist based in the UAE who specializes in history and literature. Her twitter handle is @reemalkamali.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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