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?
Te 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?
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.
Try 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).
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.