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Twice over lightly: reading the classics in lockdown

One of the things we've been hearing frequently from library patrons, post lock-down, is 'I read everything on my shelves at home – twice!' This can be proclaimed either in tones of despair, or of triumph, depending on the books in question. It's an interesting thought: what are the titles we keep on our shelves at home, and more importantly, which are the books we turn to when other sources of reading material are scarce?

Loosely speaking, the books we choose to buy and keep (or the books that we inherit), can be thought of as classics. They're the books we go back to, the books we recommend and loan to friends and family (carefully, with our name firmly inscribed on the inside front cover). Quite often, the books we keep are also accepted as classics by society at large. Ask any given reader to name a classic author, and you can be pretty sure Dickens or Jane Austen will be mentioned somewhere in the first few breaths. These are classics because, well, they're old, aren't they? And we've seen them on TV, and some of us may have studied them at school. But is that enough to qualify?

count of monte cristoTe Aroha patron Jill Houlden was one of those resorting to her home shelves in lock-down, revisiting old favourites by Dickens, A A Milne, Louisa Alcott, Wilkie Collins, Alexandre Dumas, and L M Montgomery. Alcott's Little Women she found 'disappointing', but Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo was still able to keep her engrossed. She even embarked on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which she admitted was 'difficult'. When asked what makes a classic, she mentioned 'detailed characters', and 'a story that keeps you going'. A classic, she thought, was something 'you can keep going back to, that's always fresh, like music.'

Well, if we're going to get all philosophical… Italian journalist Italo Calvino defined a classic as 'a book that has never finished saying what it has to say'. Poet and critic Ezra Pound suggested classics could be identified by 'an eternal and irrepressible freshness'. Mark Twain, on the other hand, thought a classic was 'something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.' Publishers, a notoriously hard-headed bunch, prefer to think of classics as books that stay in print; that is to say, a book for which there is a steady and long-running demand. A classic, perhaps, is a book that repays any amount of re-reading.

Why does it take a lock-down?
Classics give a lot, but they also ask something of us. They require time to read, and they require focussed attention – two commodities many of us had much more of, in lock-down. Another requirement, for the full enjoyment of a classic, is the opportunity for leisurely digestion. The pleasure of ruminating on a character or a cleverly-thought-out world, of considering the roundness of a story arc or the pleasing denouement of a well-written mystery are some of the many ways a classic will repay the reader.

Obviously there were folk who were as busy as usual, or even more so, in lock-down: those with school-age children, for example – but even here, anecdotally, parents were taking the opportunity to share some of their childhood favourites with the family, and building a new appreciation of classic works within their own bubble.

Here's the hundred dollar question: if classics are so good for the soul, why aren't we reading more of them? house at pooh corner
It's certainly true that being made to read a book, or having one forcefully recommended, has a curiously off-putting effect. It's also true that we need certain conditions to give a classic the attention it deserves. After a busy day at the office or on the shop floor, many of us enjoy the easy escape of a thriller or a light romance.
Then there's the idea that classics are 'boring'. Many of the books we think of as classics were written in a more leisurely age. They were aimed at an audience for whom filling time was not only good but necessary. Plots were often more involved, the cast of characters greater, and descriptions lengthier than we're used to today. Language, too, has changed over time, which can take a bit of getting used to.
There are two ways of approaching this. You can treat the book as a work by a foreign writer, and bask in all its foibles and peculiarities; or you can give yourself permission to skip (gasp!) over some of the longer passages. After all, it's not like you're going to be examined on it.


ninteen eightyfourTry Goodreads' Listopia: Classic Literature for Those Who Don't Like Classics, to find reader recommendations of well-known books which, even after a century or so, still have the ability to pin you to your seat. The likes of Wuthering Heights, 1984, Dracula, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Ivanhoe and Frankenstein are championed by a swathe of modern readers, and they can't all be wrong.
Not only that, but new 'classics' are being created every day. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, and Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief are examples that spring to mind. Fantasy and speculative fiction works like Andy Weir's The Martian or George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series may well be enjoyed by generations to come.
What do you think? What classics did you read or re-read over the long lock-down?
And what are your picks for our classics of the future?

 

Whetted your appetite? Try these classic authors in the library's collection (in a variety of formats).martian
Jane Austen; Louisa May Alcott; Honore de Balzac; Anne Bronte; Charlotte Bronte; Emily Bronte; John Buchan; Lewis Carroll; Willa Cather; Joseph Conrad; Charles Dickens; Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Alexandre Dumas; George Eliot; F Scott Fitzgerald; Janet Frame; Thomas Hardy; Ernst Hemingway; Victor Hugo; Aldous Huxley; James Joyce; Franz Kafka; Jack London; D H Lawrence; C S Lewis; Katherine Mansfield; George Orwell, Marcel Proust; Sir Walter Scott; William Shakespeare; John Steinbeck; J R R Tolkien; Leo Tolstoy; Mark Twain; Jules Verne, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, H G Wells.

At the Mountains of Madness - A book review

Anyone else find it weird that all you currently see in the "Recommended" or "Trending" lists on Netflix are post-apocalyptic films? One would think that escapism in the time of plague would come in more light-hearted forms, yet it seems most people's response to a world going a bit mad is to dive into a fictional world where the world has gone utterly mad, shot itself and is now slowly decomposing. "Book of Eli" was good, though.

Still, I can't judge. My reading material right now has a fairly tenebrous whiff about it – I started off with Dean Koontz (prompted by multiple rumours of one of his books containing a spooky prediction of a nasty virus in the year 2020), jumped from him to his long-time counterpart Stephen King, and have now backtracked to one of King's self-confessed inspirations: the horror nerd icon and beloved racist, Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Lovecraft also seems an apt choice of author in these days of seclusion, delusion and paranoia, as he was a notorious shut-in who spurned human contact in favour of written correspondence. There's also the small matter of his work containing an ever-present theme of humanity's general insignificance in the baleful eyes of a cold, uncaring world. But don't let that fool you, I'm sure he was a warm, delightful chap deep down. Very, very deep down.

Having just finished one of his better-known works, "At the Mountains of Madness," it's odd to find that those who dismiss him as a penny-dreadful horror hack, and those who praise him as one of the strongest influences on modern horror fiction, are both, in a way, equally correct. His writing style is like banging your head against a wall made of bricks and pretension, and his overly verbose prose is both unnecessarily florid and spectacularly dated. The relative lack of dialogue indicates that even he was aware of his own shaky grasp on face-to-face human interaction, but the subsequent focus on the narrator's first-person musings give the story a journal-like feel that lends authenticity to the events within.

When it comes to story and subject matter, his deftness is unquestionable. The story is narrated by an academic geologist who joins an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica, which encounters ancient forces that aren't too chuffed about sharing their icy domain with these irritatingly inquisitive human interlopers. The slow escalation of palpable dread, and the meticulous and colourful descriptions of the eldritch horrors the expedition runs afoul of, combine to make the story pure nightmare fuel. It plays extremely well on the age-old perception of Antarctica as a huge, hostile frontier currently almost untouched by the constant metastasizing of human civilisation. Lovecraft was fond of using the unexplored regions of the planet, particularly the ocean, as a domain for some very old/big/nasty things who have spent aeons slumbering in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to awaken and reclaim a world usurped by those pesky little homo sapiens. He himself put it best: "the oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown."

At the Mountains of Madness is technically a novella, and even with Lovecraft's customary long-windedness (which some have colloquially and not-inaccurately referred to as "verbal diarrhoea") the e-book version currently available to all library members on Wheelers is a modest 111 pages, making this the perfect story for horror/science fiction connoisseurs to devour on one of these ever-chillier evenings, snuggled under a blanket or curled up by the fire with a glass of wine, warming yourself against the chill from the icy Antarctic winds that almost seem to emanate from the pages.

Anyone interested in perusing our fine selection of e-books and audiobooks can sign up on the Matamata-Piako Libraries website at www.matamatapiakolibraries.co.nz. After joining up as a Digital member, we will email you a membership number you can use to access our online resources. If you are already a member, these are included in your membership.

Information on accessing our e-books and audiobooks is available on our website, however for further assistance you can email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone during normal business hours:

027 558 3133 (Matamata Library)

027 641 9102 (Morrinsville Library)

027 614 8707 (Te Aroha Library)

By Ciaran (Library Assistant at Matamata-Piako Libraries).

Public computer news

A warm welcome back to all!
For those who've been missing our APNK Chromebooks and Chromestations, we now have a whole bunch of new applications up and running.
Anyone with a Microsoft account (this can be accessed with a Hotmail or Outlook email address) can now use Office applications such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel, making things like CV creation a breeze.
Also included are apps such as SumoPaint, Pixlr, and Chrome Canvas, which can be used to draw pictures and import or edit photos and other images, and tools such as Calculator, Camera, Web Store, MetService, Maori Dictionary, YouTube and more.
Finally, we've added two new games to our list of apps – Chess and Solitaire, which can be played against the computer or online with others. Enjoy!

 

Library Services at Alert Level 2

At Alert Level 2, returns slots will open and you will be able to start ordering books through our new Library Takeaway service.

We are re-opening on Saturday 23 May 9.30am – 12 pm and 1-3.30 pm. 

Please check our opening hours page for more times and our FAQs to keep yourself updated with the latest developments.

If you can't find what you need on this website, please call us. Te Aroha: 07 884 7047 or 027 614 8707, Morrinsville: 07 889 8388 or 027 641 9102 or Matamata: 07 888 7157 or 027 558 3133.

The secret life of books

Pick 'em up, read 'em, put 'em down again. That's about it with books, isn't it?

Wrong, as it happens. Turns out the humble book is more multi-purpose than we ever imagined. Check out some of the unexpected uses for those unassuming tomes…


book safeThe book safe
It's an actual thing. You can even learn how to make your own on Pinterest.

 

 


The book buildingbook igloo
Or, to be precise, the book igloo. Just watch that roof.

 

 


book pillowBook as pillow
We understand the best pillow is a 500-plus page paperback, well-thumbed, but clean. The jury is still out on whether knowledge from the book will actually seep into your brain as you sleep.

 


Book as furniturebook bench
This literary wonder resides at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

 

 

 

book benchBook as pest control
Not recommended, especially if you were thinking of using a library book. The very idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

book flowersBook as flower-press
Again, NOT with a library book. Please.

 

 


book xylothekBook as cata-log
Real name, xylothek. Books that are both made from wood, and feature wood specimens. Very popular in late 18th century Germany, apparently. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/xylothek

 

 

book nunchucksBooks as weapon of self-defencebook self defence
(Thanks to https://thebushwickbookclubseattle.com/ for this useful tip.) There are even instructional videos to show you how to wield that best-seller in a weaponly way.

 

Better still, carry this little gem in your handbag/manbag for every occasion. Hai-yah!

 

 

 

Do you have novel uses for books we haven't covered? Let us know, and we can publish them in The Secret Life of Books, Part Two.