You know how food packaging includes a ‘Best Before’ date that tells us just how long the item will live in the cupboard before it’s past its best.? If you’re house is anything like mine, we often find tins and packets buried at the back of the cupboard that look perfectly fine even if they are two years out of date. Sometimes I’m tempted to open them just to see if the contents have deteriorated.
Last year I started to think that certain authors appear to have a shelf life too. For some like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, their shelf life runs for several centuries while for others like C P Snow (remember his Strangers and Brothers series?) or even the Booker prize winners, Stanley Middleton and David Storey, it could be a few decades before the book gradually gets pushed to the back of the book store shelves before being relegated to the bin end sale or relegated to the basement at the library. Some of them may get rescued and the
author rediscovered (which seems to have been the case with Elizabeth Taylor) but others seem destined to disappear from our memory.
What promoted this was a book club discussion on a title I’d chosen, The Alone to the Alone, by the Welsh author Gwyn Thomas. It was published in 1947 by an author who went on to become a household name in the UK as a regular chat show participant and broadcaster. If I tell you that this was the man chosen by the BBC to write and broadcast a eulogy to those killed in one of the UK’s worst mining disasters in 1966, you’ll get a sense of his status.
His written work was widely applauded for its lyrical qualities and acerbic wit. the book club enjoyed The Alone to the Alone yet decided it was very much ‘a book of its time’. In other words, it would have resonated more for readers at the time of its publication in 1947 than it does for today’s readers. Since his other novels are in a similar vein, the group’s assessment probably goes for his body of work as a whole.
Why that should be the case, we were not sure. Thomas wrote about life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. Why would this not resonate today yet Dickens’s novel about the poor social conditions of London in the 1840s (Dombey and Son) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850s exposure of the appalling conditions of mill workers in northern England continue to get our attention? Why are the latter considered literary classics and yet you’d be hard pressed to find a copy of Thomas novel in any leading bookshop (not even in the capital of Wales). We had no answer except to pose another question: what makes a book a classic? We had even less of a clear answer to that question and even suspected that it’s a question to which there is no clear cut answer, just theories.
If you’re interested in hearing Gwyn Thomas’s eulogy, its available at the BBC site via this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gmpcf