Monday, December 2, 2013

Why there are no great cat books

In a very recent post I spoke happily of kafka, the Library cat, and how he seems to be turning out very well indeed as he grows up. But some part of me thinks it sort of begs the question "And what cat doesn't turn out well?" Faced with that question I am at a loss. As far as my experience of them goes, all cats, in one way or another, turn out well. And so, with this, I think I have stumbled upon the answer to a riddle that has perplexed me for some years.

The riddle is this: Why are there several great dog books, but no great cat books?

Among the great dog books I can count offhand is The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat, Uncle Boris in the Yukon and Other Shaggy Dog Stories by Daniel Pinkwater, The One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith and, possibly, Call of the Wild by Jack London. Also the entire Peanuts ouvre, though Snoopy as a dog, after the first ten years or so of the strip, is a rather questionable proposition.

Among the great cat books there is nothing. We have maybe the Cheshire cat in Alice's Adventures, but we're already well into Snoopy territory there, and there's a couple picture books I like. One of my favorite authors of all time, Ursula K. LeGuin, wrote a series about cats with wings. I don't not recommend it. And after that I am at a complete loss.

So what's the deal?

Here is my theory. Dogs are more variable and impressionable than cats. There are great dogs and crappy dogs. There are nice dogs and mean dogs. This kind of variability is useful for storytelling. Also these dogs, while by no means devoid of their own personalities, have a kind of receptivity. They readily take on the qualities of things around them. Nazis, or Conquistadors can have dogs and they become evil dogs. Daniel Pinkwater or Farley Mowat can have dogs and they are no doubt winning dogs. Surely there are plenty of exceptions to this, and a story about a southern police attack dog during the civil rights protests who refuses to menace the marchers might make for a very nice story, but all that only reinforces my point. And my point is that there is a lot of room with dogs, a lot of room in dogs, for us to broadcast, project, and fill out our stories and visions. Dogs will happily blend in with all that. They will drink it up, roll around in it and cover themselves with it. Hold it out to them and they will come running, tongue wagging. Hold that story crap out to a cat and it will start cleaning itself. It will give you a look that at first you will think is contempt, but then you will slowly start to wonder if you have any idea at all about what was in that cat look. It is not interested in your vision of the world. It is confident in its own. It does not welcome your narrative, it is busy with its own. And its own narrative is one we can admire or even totally love, but it is difficult to plagiarize, exploit or borrow, perhaps partly because it is slightly alien to our ideal cadences.

Or so my new found theory goes. It may be right, or partly right. But then, on the other hand, I can only count, what, like five great dog books? Perhaps its just a matter of luck and alchemy. Perhaps it's mere chance that no one has hit it, just so, with a cat book. Perhaps we should not give up hope yet. It may, one day, happen.


  1. Are you unaware of Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, or do you not consider it to be a great cat book?

  2. Well, B, but with nothing against it in particular without reexamination. Do you consider it great?

  3. Uh, I haven't read it. My tastes run more toward Billy and the Boingers Bootleg.

    1. Update: read large chunk of Dewey. It is not particularly good though not distasteful or anything. As for Bill the Cat, well... he is no more a cat than Opus is a Penguin.


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