A Dearth of Classics

In the discussion of books and audiobooks for my sister – and I will work on that list for the blog over the weekend, but these things are a huge labor of love, which I have not had time for – I mentioned to a friend that the Swallows and Amazons had been a favorite when I was a kid, and it might be right up his sons’ alley. He and I have chatted many times about books, children, boys (he has several) and the education system. Both of us worry about our sons in an increasingly ‘girls world’ but this post isn’t about that, per se. It’s what happened when he looked up the book in his public library’s online card catalog. It wasn’t there. There was a movie (which I didn’t even know existed, and I’m now torn between wanting to see, and not wanting to see how they maimed a beloved memory) but absolutely no paper copies. He had to request it on inter-library loan in order to find out what I was recommending to him.

I know, having been a librarian in a small library, the pain of deciding what can be weeded, what needs to be replaced, and balancing the old favorites with space for new fresh titles. It’s not easy, some days. Children’s beloved books, in particular, get battered and beaten quickly, with the older plainer covers falling unnoticed into retirement behind trendy dustjackets. Librarians have to pull out the old and put in the new. I know this! But as a reader, it’s difficult to see that classics I loved and grew up with are just not available (or not easily) to young readers. It’s not about the language – to select almost at random, George McDonald’s Princess and the Goblin in original written dialect would be hard for a young reader. English has drifted since it was written. But Arthur Ransome’s series of stories about independent children having adventures all summer long, mucking about in boats and playing at pirates? That’s evergreen, and too recent to be lost to diminishing vocabulary and literacy skills.

Even more worrying, I came across mention of a trend in libraries that dictates their books in juvenile or YA collections shall not be too old – not the individual book, but when the story was published. This is deeply concerning to me as a mother, as it cuts my children-readers off from sources of history in other places than their schoolbooks, which are biased. I know that is a flat fact, so eliminating all fiction of the past as well? When it was written it was not history. It’s a marvelous way to bring history to life, and should be approached as such. If there is concern over the way certain topics are handled? Instead of pretending that never happened, by burying the evidence, as it were, let us instruct the young minds to compare now to then. Which is better? Will they not learn more in this manner?

Whitewashing the classics, or simply disappearing them, is no way to treat books. We know that readers have more ’emotional intelligence’, empathy, and are better able to connect to other people. Readers are, at the level of immersion and enjoyment it takes to make reading an integral part of your personality, not shallow consumers of only the latest titles. So we would think that the avid reader, consuming as broad a swathe of books as they can manage – I remember checking out of the library twice weekly with as many books as I could carry! – is getting both the classic and the newest release. That it is the old which forms along with the new into this synthesis of the perfect human fiction reader that is more socially ept than the non-reader. Classics still have value, and losing them to the war on history is a tragedy.

11 thoughts on “A Dearth of Classics

  1. The whole purpose of Project Gutenberg is to keep those old books from disappearning. LOTS of volunteers are taking the time to transcribe out of print books, out of copyright books, and the odds and ends,
    I’ve watched the project grow since the early 90s before it was generally available to the public.
    SOOO much cool stuff!!!

  2. One of my best teachers, 7th grade at St. Joeseph’s, decided I was above the highest reading group so she just told me read a book during the reading period. She would give me a book if I didn’t have one. Definitely freeing.

  3. I’ve not been a librarian, so I don’t know the problem from that end.

    Recently, though, I went looking for a book my mother read to me when I was 4 years old, “Sonny Elephant” by Madge Bingham. I remember being curled up on the couch, with my single mom, who had spent a long day at work, to come home to two little kids, and find time to read a book she had stopped by the library to get for me. I particularly remember how wonderful the treats Sonny ate sounded to us, particularly the candy rice balls.

    It was originally published in 1930, republished in 1939, with a third edition in 1958, which is probably the edition that my mom got from the Washington Library to read to me.

    The ONLY place I could find the book was in the non-circulating section of one of the local libraries; Madge Bingham was a Georgia author, so that’s why a copy of the 1930 first edition got flagged as a keepsie.

    I’m grateful that it was retained, but sad that it’s not in circulation. No mamas reading it to little boys…

    And then, a miracle happened: I found ONE copy, from the 1939 edition, on sale at ABE books, for $19.95. Every other copy I had seen for sale (and not many of those) were going for $75-$125. THE SAME DAY! I found and ordered that copy, I was given access to the reserve copy, and I took pictures of it; that’s GREAT, because the 1930 edition had color plates, while the 1939 edition used black & white drawings.

    I cannot possibly manage dead-tree copies of all the books I read. During the last Dragon Award reviews, there were certain books that somehow presented lower-priced hardback copies than eBooks; have to dispose of them. Looking over at my bookcase, creaking with the weight of an accumulation, I wonder how many of those will be retained by my kids and grand-kids?

  4. It’s as bad, if not worse, with non-fiction. The classics, the really good history books, disappear. I ended up buying one after the local library deaccessioned their copy, and pointing out to the librarians that I purchased one for $$$. They had thrown away the library’s copy, “Because it was old.” Had never checked the ‘Zon or Flea-bay to see if it had cash value. They’d never asked a historian if the book had reference library value. The look on the boss’s face was… Let us say, dyspeptic.

    Now they run the books through the computer, and sell those that are worth more than about five dollars or so.

    1. My boss at the library was good about this. And he couldn’t bear to send the non-sellable books to the landfill so he sold them for pennies on the pound, just to give them a home!

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