On books having expiration dates

Up until now, I hadn’t read any of the Australian titles on the list of 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. I had picked up Ash Road by Ivan Southall by lucky dip, not knowing anything about it. When I saw it on the library shelf, I immediately had an eversion to the cover – I much prefer the saccharine covers of the 40s and 50s to the mustards and yellows of covers from the 70s. Ash Road‘s cover was in fact from the 80s, I discovered after looking inside at the publication date, but I still didn’t really like it. The book itself, however, was first published in 1966, and was about a group of children dealing with a bushfire.

My mother grew up on a farm in country South Australia, a farm that is still run by her brother, my uncle. So the book’s setting – country Australia in the 60s – was unsettling because it rang true and untrue at the same time. Some of it connected to parts of what I had heard about life on a farm from my mother, or my grandparents, but it somehow felt kind of unreal. Maybe because life, even in the country, isn’t quite like Ash Road describes it anymore, although parts of it still is. Ash Road seemed to capture a moment in Australian history that has faded, but still lives on as a stereotype of Australia. Perhaps it is Australia as we wish it still were. But in reality, most Australian now live along the East Coast, with more and more people every generations leaving the outback and moving to the big cities. The type of Australia that Ash Road captured is fading.

It surprised me when I saw Ash Road on the list of 1001 Children’s Books and noted it was Australian, because I had never heard of it before. Most of the other Australian titles rang a bell – I had heard of them, or the author, or read them. But not Ash Road. I looked it up online, and discovered that Ivan Southall was (and still is) the only Australian to have won the Carnegie Award, and, at the time, was the only person to receive the award outside the UK. Ash Road, and several other Ivan Southall titles, had been on the list of books children would read for school for a very long time.

But now, it was almost like it had disappeared. It is no longer in print in Australia, I have never seen in on the shelf of a bookstore, have never had someone ask for it. Should it be? It is apparently an Australian classic. It shows us what Australia used to be like, or at least, what we wanted it to be like. Or, now that Australia is changing, is it out of date? Is it too far removed from Australia now? (Saying that, I enjoyed it far more than I expected to, perhaps because I saw glimpses of my family’s farm 50 years ago).Can a book be a classic, and then lose its classic-ness? Can the term ‘classic’ have an expiration date?

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5 comments

  1. Good question. I think it ties in with who is doing the designating of “classic”, though! What were the criteria? A very ambiguous term in many cases.

    But yes, I think books can lose their classic designation, as tastes change and things move on. In most cases I suspect the book was not then a *true* classic, as those retain their appeal through the generations – ah! – perhaps *that* is the most important criteria. Appeal which does not wane with the years.

    In which case a book such as Ash Road might well be misclassified to start with. There are numerous very good books which fade out of the public eye as they become replaced by more current tales. A classic is one which does not fade away; the market choses them, no matter what the booklists say.

    I have never heard of this book, and I *have* heard of other Australian children’s stories. But I have read another of his books, I believe called A City Out of Sight, and I wouldn’t call it a universal classic personally. There are regional classics, though, into which category this author might well fit.

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