Classics were predicted to be one of the first things to fall at the feet of eBooks. Traditional booksellers — like me — have been in a perpetual cold sweat, wondering how to make up
the lost revenue for around a third of our sales. Classics publishers must have been positively feverish with worry.
The reason for the panic is thus: the great majority of classic works of literature are old — think Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, the Brontes — and, therefore, out of copyright. That means
that anyone who has the time and inclination can publish Dickens online and nobody can come after them screaming copyright theft. So an eBook of Great Expectations, for instance, can be
found, easily, for free. So why, with everyone bragging about their Kindles, would anyone bother going into a bookshop and buying a paperback edition for £7.99? Why spend money for something
you can get for free?
You can see why we’ve all been quaking in our boots. But, oddly enough, paper editions of classics are positively thriving. Indeed, Penguin — classic publisher extraordinaire —
has just brought out a beautifully designed new collection of the old classics, under
the name of the ‘English Library’. Perhaps a clue to their success is in the name.
A ‘library’ is, by definition, a place for books. Few among us can boast of having our own private library (just along the hall, past the morning room), but most of us have a few
bookshelves. A humble library, certainly, but a place for books nonetheless. Now I know as well as the next person, and probably better than most, the terrific danger of hoarding books — the
endless battle for space, searching for ever more nooks and crannies of an increasingly crowded flat to drill some ever-more-imaginative shelves. Occasionally there’s nothing for it other
than to be stern with myself and force myself to get rid of some books. Books that I didn’t particularly like, or that I know a friend might enjoy. They are invariably books that I
don’t intend to reread.
Aha, I hear you cry. Therein lies the immunity of a classic. For a classic is something that one always thinks one might have cause to revisit. I am forever pulling down an old margin-scribbled
copy of Woolf or Dickens or the rest of them to remind myself of something. I want to have them there, on hand, forever. Classics are essential to my library and, surely, essential to any library.
Certainly Penguin seems to think they can kit out a whole ‘English Library’ quite handsomely.
Classics are books that bear rereading, books that will outlast many competing books on the shrinking space of a bookshelf. So one understandably wants a classic to be a beautiful book. Thankfully,
the Penguin English Library is made up of very pretty books. And they aren’t alone. There are also smart natty Vintage Classics, or gorgeous hardback Virago Modern Classics, to name just a
couple. Classics have become collectable, eminently hoardable things.
The thing about beautiful objects is that one rather wants to show them off. Especially if they are not only beautiful but also convey your intelligence. I would feel rather proud to be seen on the
tube or in a café flaunting a beautifully designed book jacket. I would feel especially proud if that happened to be the cover of Middlemarch. No, I’m not reading that trash that one
picks up from train station WH Smiths, be-stickered with endorsements from the latest TV book club. I am reading a great work of English Literature. And in a beautiful edition too.
Of course the thing about a Kindle is that nobody other than you, the reader, knows what you’re reading on it. Hence the rocketing success of erotic eBooks when Kindles first came out.
It’s pretty handy if you want to keep your reading to yourself, but less so if you’d like to flaunt a little intellectual prowess. (And, let’s face it, no potential Mr Darcy is
going to spark up a conversation about the book you’re reading if he can’t see what it is.)
But alongside this creation of beautiful, collectable, lasting books, classics publishers have been up to something else. They have been shifting the meaning of ‘classic’.
Publishers are a canny bunch. Worried about nobody wanting to pay for out-of-copyright content, when it’s available online for free, they have been expanding their classics lists to include
more works that are still in copyright. This year, Vintage Classics will be publishing works from authors such as Ian Fleming, William Maxwell and Christopher Isherwood. All died less than seventy
years ago, so their work is still in copyright. No free eBooks there then.
Whereas once we used to think of a classic as something pertaining to the Classical World — as in the Greeks and the Romans — the meaning of ‘classic’ has drifted to include
great old works of English literature too. Dickens and co. have joined the ranks of Virgil and Homer. And now we’re looking to the more recent past as Fleming, Fitzgerald and the others all
hop aboard. I don’t think this broadened meaning devalues the word ‘classic’. If anything, modern classics make them harder to dismiss. Classics can no longer just be palmed off
as old, perhaps somewhat irrelevant, things. Now a classic is something memorable, something enduring, something with a future, not just a past. And something, evidently, that many readers are
happy to pay for. I’m very pleased to say, it looks like classics are here to stay.