-by BBI bookseller Daniel Kiernan
Row two in our shop is Classic Authors. On these shelves you will find the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and … Ian Fleming? Many regard the James Bond books to be classics, but for some reason it seems wrong to put Casino Royale in the same place as The Count of Monte Cristo, even though both involve gambling and violence by the bucketful.
The question of which shelf books get placed on in our shop can be quite the humdinger, and in no category are more hums are dinged than when deciding what makes a book a Classic, or, in our case, written by a Classic Author. We use the latter label rather than the former to avoid confusion with Classics, as in, works pertaining to Greco-Roman culture and language, which can be found on the end of row thirty three (as a note, we actually call this section Greek & Roman Literature, this time to avoid confusion with classics in the sense of what this blog is about). For the rest of this article I shall use ‘classic’ to mean ‘a book suitable to be found in Classic Authors as this makes for one less word to type.
So what makes a book a classic? Looking at our shelves I am inclined to agree with Mark Twain, who observed that a classic is ‘something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read’. I’ve never read any D.H. Lawrence or W.M. Thackery, yet part of me thinks I should - quelle surprise, these authors are well represented on row two. There are, however, many authors on the shelves whose books I have read, like Arthur Conan Doyle and George Orwell. So, while he makes a very witty observation, I believe Mr. Twain hasn’t quite got to the core of what makes a book a classic.
Publishers can be quite helpful when it comes to answering the question. Penguin and Vintage both have ranges of books they publish under a Classic imprint, and so when we get books published in this format, they usually end up on row two. But this can be deceptive. In 2013 Penguin published Morrissey’s Autobiography. Nothing wrong with that of course. Many people were eager to read it. What irked some, though, was that Penguin published it under their Classic imprint in its first printing. Morrissey’s editor believed that this work was destined to be remembered for all time, and decided to futureproof that belief by publishing it under the Classic imprint, rather than their regular one.
The outrage this arrogance caused highlights that a classic has to have been around for long enough for enough people to regard it as one. 'Instant classic’ is a phrase often found in book reviews, and its appeal lies in its oxymoronic nature. Sometimes it is even used justly, but only time can tell for sure. The question then becomes, of course, how much time has to pass before a book can be a classic? It’s a difficult question to answer, a bit like asking how many grams of sand make a heap - there’s just no set amount.
Luckily, the publishers have come to our aid again by prefixing a selection of books in their classic imprint range with ‘Modern’. Indeed, Penguin made good use of their Modern Classics imprint to heal the wounds caused by their Morrissey debacle by later publishing Autobiography under this imprint, instead of their regular Classic one. But let’s return to Ian Fleming, whose Bond books are also published by Penguin under their Modern Classics range. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, it seems odd to lump these books together with the other books or row two, but why? The simplest answer would be snobbery. The Bond books were written as pulp entertainment, and don’t tackle the complex themes of something like Anna Karenina and lack the detailed characterisation to found in a Dickens novel. As of this, they do not deserve to share shelf space with The Greats.
Some of this may be true, but it is far from the whole story. Ultimately, I would but the Bond books in rows 6 & 7:Crime/Thriller, because that is where I think most people would look for them, regardless of whether they deserve classic status or not. Genre is often the deciding factor when it comes to placing books on the shelves. If you come to the shop looking for The Elfstones of Shannara you would expect to find it in Fantasy. It could be in General Fiction under B, but Terry Brooks is a prolific author of (usually) weighty tomes, and if we put all his books in General Fiction, there would be limited space for the works of other authors who share his surname’s initial. The same applies here: Bond books are thrillers, so it makes sense to have them alongside other works of the genre.
So practical considerations bar the Bond books from entry to row two, and ultimately it is practical considerations that matter most. We are a shop, dealing serving customers who have expectations about where books may be, and this matters more to us than philosophical arguments about the nature of things. But what about the snobbery? Fleming’s characters are fairly two dimensional, and the main theme he tackles is War, of the cold variety, and how to stop it from warming up. The snobbery argument may be fair, but many still regard the Bond books as classics, not just publishers who want to give their back catalogue more prestige, but also the reading public.
Why is this? I believe it is because these books, and others that get assigned classic status, have something in them that appeals to us across all times and cultures. Whatever that may be, it equates to showing us some aspect of human nature to which we can relate, and perhaps even from which we can learn. Oliver Twist is a classic because between its pages the virtues and vices of humanity are laid bare in Dickens’ colourful characters. Middlemarch is a classic because it deals with the realities of marriage and the place of women in society in a frank and honest realism.
And what about Goldfinger? Well, it’s a classic because it is a marvellous work of escapism that reflects the (often questionable) beliefs, desires and attitudes not only of it's author, but of the culture that produced it as well. It also helps that it spawned a cinematic icon who, despite his many faults, is just brilliant. So, if you’re looking for copy, while I may agree that it is a classic, Classic Authors is the wrong place to look. Head to Crime/Thriller, rows 6 & 7, instead.You can visit our website and learn more about us here.