On rearranging shelves

It was Thursday night shopping tonight, and I spent the evening rearranging our bookshop’s ‘children’s classics’ section. In fact, I did a bit of renovating, and added in some extra shelves, as the books were rather crammed. I put the fairy tales with the fairy tales, the Australian classics with the Australian classics, and all the millions of different editions of Alice in Wonderland together. Since we only have three small bays for children’s classics, and six floor-to-cieling bays for children’s fiction, there are many books that are categoried as ‘children’s classics’ that, in my opinion, would belong in children’s classics if we had space. Enid Blyton takes up three shelves of children’s fiction, and there is jsut not enough space to fit all her titles in children’s classics, even though Famous Five and The Secret Faraway Tree inevitably are classics. Even the plain puffin classic editions of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Tom Sawyer have to sit with the regular ol’ children’s fiction,with only the glossy, illustrated versions deemed special enough to sit on the children’s classics shelf.

It got me thinking about how we decide when a book changes from just another children’s fiction title, to something honoured enough to be deemed a ‘classic’. Surely, in fifty years time, the Harry Potter series will be sitting amongst the ‘classics’, as will ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’. However, is it simply the length of time a book has been around that determines when a book changes to a ‘classic’? If so, how long does a book need to mature?

At the bookstore I previously worked at, there was a boy who worked with me who ‘only read classics’ (grown up classics, that is, not children’s classics). He looked down at customers buying  mainstream, contempory books as he read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or The Importance of Being Earnest. I thought this was ridiculous, becuase Oscar Wilde’s work was, at some point, newly in print and a contempory work, and imagine if this boy had been alive then? Would he have refused to read Oscar Wilde because his work hadn’t been around long enough?


One comment

  1. Excellent post! I have often thought the same thing. When, exactly, does a book become a “classic”? And who decides? A somewhat nebulous classification! I’ll allow you Harry Potter as a future classic – undeniable! – but what about Twilight? The Hunger Games? There are elements both of initial popularity and staying power – “lasting appeal” – to take into consideration.

    Also interesting how many books originally published for an adult audience (Gulliver’s Travels, Moby Dick, Jules Verne’s oeuvre, et al) are now found in “children’s classic” sections. You mention Alice in Wonderland; it was widely read by adults as an “adult” book when it was published; now it is considered a children’s story. Perhaps in our definition of “classic” we might add in broad appeal to all age ranges? Hmmm…

    Ditto “vintage”, something I’ve struggled with myself, especially with authors who write over an extremely long period, for example Rumer Godden, who published from the 1930s to the 1990s. At some point her work shifts from vintage to contemporary; it is an arbitrary decision by the reviewer at which point this happens. For me the dividing line is more or less sometime within the 1970s – a very personal decision based on nothing but my own lifetime reading experience, I hasten to add – but for a younger reader that might well be considered firmly “vintage”; their own dividing line might be much later!

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