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On Classics, Average Older Books, And Contrasting Values

A photograph of three classic books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

I’ve been thinking about classics and, for want of a better descriptor, bog-standard older books, in terms of how they match up, and where the term ‘classic’ begins and ends.

When I first began to develop an interest in reading famous books, and for a fair length of time into my journey reading them, I used to call all older books classics. True, I was naïve back then and didn’t realise just how many older books the world had managed to retain, but mostly I saw historical books as being equal to each other, all full of value – albeit that I started to see it more as a perceived value once I’ve read my first dull book that everyone else seemed to like.

(On the note of needing a better descriptor – I’d like to see one. Does the fact there isn’t a proper descriptor for average older books a reason why so many of them are still put on a pedestal?)

A recent article on Lit Hub included this:

Classics are classics for good reason, and forgotten books are most often forgotten because they weren’t excellent (Wirkus 2018)

In many ways, never was a truer word spoken, but there are a lot of books that were forgotten and then remembered – forgotten because they didn’t seem relevant at that time; I believe Twelve Years A Slave would be in that category – a book that was relevant during abolition but perhaps not so much after slavery ended, until it was discovered again in the last few decades. (And that’s why I didn’t add ‘forgotten books’ to my bracketed paragraph – whilst the article says ‘most often forgotten because’ I reckon it’s a bit less than ‘most often’. There are many more reasons books are lost, and we likely won’t find out about all of those reasons.)

Having now read a few older books of that non-classic variety, particularly those in the ‘was very popular and a classic for a short period of time’ category, I find it interesting how we change; some books are forgotten because they have values we no longer, or had no longer, ascribe(d) to.

I’m thinking of Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline, the book I’m currently struggling through, a book in which a man follows the unhappy main character everywhere she goes, having tantrums when anyone suggests he leaves her be. Turner Smith’s publishers and contemporary readers would doubtless be surprised to hear the book is now virtually unknown – it was incredibly successful in its day (which is a reason to read it – a book by a female author in the 1700s). It was considered excellent by most.

Mary Wollstonecraft did not like it much at all, however, and this is something else to consider – if a writer who is revered so much today for reasons that are completely opposite to the popular book’s qualities did not like it, it does stand to reason that it would be obscure now.

[She] “lamented […] that the false expectations these wild scenes excite, tend to debauch the mind, and throw an insipid kind of uniformity over the moderate and rational prospects of life, consequently adventures are sought for and created, when duties are neglected, and content despised.” (Wollstonecraft, in Fletcher, 2003)

The Light In The Clearing I read a few years ago. I likened it to Great Expectations insofar as literary atmospheres go; it was a popular book by a very successful author. Nowadays it’s obscure, its topic and messages far surpassed in execution by others from the same period whose fame has only increased.

It’s both sad and understandable – as the world changes, books that used to be important may cease to be so. The good thing now is that we can at least save them, retain them digitally where they can be uncovered in the future whereas previously they might have been lost.

Online References

Wirkus, Tim (2018) Our Obsession With Lost Books, And How They Often Disappoint, Lit Hub, accessed 20th March 2018

Books References

Fletcher, Lorraine (ed.) “Appendix A: The Reception of Emmeline”, in Lennox, Charlotte (2003) Emmeline, Broadview Press, Peterborough, pp. 478-80


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