There are some things in life that you can rely on, events and objects that stand as steadfast institutions, time honoured traditions that are passed from generation to generation. In the world of literature, it is those books that are collectively dubbed the ‘classics’ that have remained reliable for many a reader. No matter how many new books are written, printed and published every year, there will always be a classic upon the shelves to be unearthed or rediscovered. However some alarming new research has suggested that, like such icons of British culture as the Routemaster bus or red telephone box, the classics may become endangered species.
A survey conducted by the supermarket chain Asda has indicated that the younger generation in particular are turning away from classic literature, with modern novels taking precedence in their reading habits. What is perhaps more worrying is the lack of knowledge a number of children have about the classics – 60% of the children surveyed had not heard of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and a combined 80% believed that the title character of Moby Dick was either a pop star or an explorer, whereas nearly half could correctly give the name of David Beckham’s autobiography. It would seem that celebrity culture is king, giving the potential for the future to be less about Jane Eyre and more about celebrity airheads who put their names to ghost-written novels.
However it’s not all bad news – the research clearly shows young people do have a definite taste for literature and reading, with the Harry Potter and Twilight series proving especially popular. That young readers connect so closely to these books is encouraging, and they can be a stepping stone to the classics; the stories of modern novels can be traced back to their predecessors, be they love stories complete with dark and brooding heroes and heroines or those all about the fantastical, supernatural and mystical. If a girl is in love with Twilight, it’s just as likely she’ll love Wuthering Heights if it’s given a chance. Those of us at The Reader Organisation who work closely with young people can testify that not all of the younger generations are losing interest in classic literature.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for the classics’ lack of appeal is the perception a number of young and older people alike have of them somehow being ‘stuffy’ and meant only for certain types of people. To attempt to help dismiss this myth, Asda launched their Big Read campaign at the end of January which offered a range of classic novels, as well as newer books for both children and adults, at a snip for a mere £3 each or a ‘mix and match’ 2 for £5 offer, meaning that customers could pick up books and put them in their shopping baskets along with their groceries and essentials. Dewi Williams, Papershop Category Marketing Manager at Asda said about the campaign:
“Asda’s Big Read campaign is reducing the cost of these classic books to encourage children big and small to indulge in classic literature before it literally dies out. But it’s not just kids these books will appeal to but adults too after all, you’re never too old to enjoy Dickens or Bronte.”
By making a large number of classic books available for the first time in the supermarket, there is little doubt that The Big Read will go some way to help reclassify the classics for modern readers, namely by removing the ‘class’ aspect in terms of making them affordable and readily available to all.
The Big Read promotion has recently come to a close in Asda stores, yet the fact that it garnered high-profile support from Carol Vorderman, as well as a range of stores holding special in-store storytelling sessions to highlight the joys of reading, indicates that the campaign had a positive outcome. The cause is also set to continue as six stores are introducing what they are terming ‘learning bays’ on a trial basis until May. If deemed a success, there is a possibility that they could be in every store nationwide – and as the initial signs are reported to be ‘promising’ by Asda book buyer Steph Bateson, things are certainly looking good for the promotion of literature in the down-to-earth environment of supermarkets.