by Barrie Olmstead
For Inland 360
During this time of pandemic and quarantine, many people are turning to classic literature. Before area libraries had to close, patrons stocked up on stacks of books and were especially amenable to reading suggestions. Like many adults with spare time, I’ve found myself wanting to either revisit or explore classic titles.
Growing up I had a healthy appreciation for the cult classic as well as storied Americana and works with an air of nihilism. My dad handed me Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, Tolkien and Jack Kerouac. There was Faulkner, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Abbey demonstrated his own kind of social distancing in his classic outdoor narrative, “Desert Solitaire.” I have read Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” more times than I can count, but manage to gain new insights with each reading. Chloe Schama, reviewing Vivian Gornick’s “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader” in the New York Times, noted that “it is one of the great ironies of consuming literature that as much as we read to expand our minds, we often take in only whatever it is that we are primed to absorb at a particular moment.” This is as compelling a case as I have heard for the virtues of rereading.
After devouring Patti Smith’s acclaimed memoirs several years ago, “Just Kids” and “M Train,” I found myself reaching for titles that had so clearly inspired her. Authors from Arthur Rimbaud to Jean Genet to Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita;” none of these were required reading in my academic career. However, I was presented with Herman Melville several times. I long for other perspectives. Smith also sings the praises of Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind Up Bird Chronicle,” saying, “I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it… I did not wish to exit its atmosphere.” It has been on my to-read list for over two decades and her praise was enough of a nudge.
In 2017, I found myself reaching for feminist classics. Writers like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and Cherrie Moraga may have felt like required reading for a gender studies course when I was in college; now they feel timely and urgent, if not prescient. Lorde’s famous essay, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You,” has struck a chord in recent years. Kathryn Schulz wrote about social justice advocate Pauli Murray in the New Yorker upon the re-release of her posthumously published memoir “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage” and stated: “Historical figures aren’t human flotsam, swirling into public awareness at random intervals. Instead, they are almost always borne back to us on the current of our own times.”
Library patrons have shown a willingness to branch out when it comes to classics, trying different genres, including fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. The 1970’s were a time when science fiction was coming into its own. H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, and George Orwell are still there for you, but they are also sharing shelf space and genre stickers with Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and early John le Carre are as potent as ever, as are Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series and Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” I have observed younger patrons reach for David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” with one hand and Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” with the other. Neither of those novels was likely to have been on a school reading list, and yet they’ve maintained a cult-like staying power that makes them compelling. Novels like “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” were hardly considered great literature when released but have developed a cult status based on their ability to reveal the cultural mores of their times. Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Charles Dickens will never be obsolesced but their ubiquity in the culture can make their novels feel a little too well worn.
In an effort to reinvigorate some of the classics, Penguin Press continues to up its game with artful covers and a diversifying range of authors. They’ve highlighted writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman. Elda Rotor, the vice president and publisher of the Penguin Classics imprint, has been instrumental in this endeavor. In an interview with the New York Times, she stated “I’m very interested in voices that have been marginalized, because there are very essential works that a wider readership should learn about.” She has made the imprint less Euro-centric and focused more on Asian-American, African, and Caribbean authors; she hopes to bring Native American and Latinx authors into the fold as well.
One doesn’t need to wait for the doors of libraries’ physical spaces to reopen in order to enjoy a classic title. Library patrons can access the Duke Classics from the library’s Overdrive catalog, either through the Libby app or through Valnet. You could easily kill an afternoon scrolling through the pages and pages of titles available for download. Classic literature has a way of reminding us that we are not alone in dealing with calamitous events. One need only download a copy of Albert Camus’s “The Plague” to be reminded of that.
Olmstead is the adult services librarian at the Lewiston City Library. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.