Why everyone’s digging up lost classics

The chances are, if you’re a regular bookshop browser, that on a recent visit a handsome book will have caught your eye and you’ll have picked it up to discover that it’s not exactly a new book but a new old book, reborn.  

Great news for forgotten/dead authors (arguably less good for emerging ones) is the revival of lost classics that has given a fillip to the publishing industry in the last few years. Independents and small presses are springing up across the globe – Persephone, Daunt Books, Sort of, Pushkin, NYRB, Text Classics, to name just a few.  Not only do these independent publishers rediscover writers and books most of us never knew existed, they do a wonderful job of making us want them. NYRB’s Classics are collectors’ items; Daunt Books’ spines – a kind of Farrow & Bull off-white – you can spot at ten paces; Text’s canary yellow through several walls.

It’s surely no accident that these books also look the part in a way that speaks to a certain kind of reader.  Title and author may be unheard of by all but the tiniest fraction of the planet’s population, but these are instantly identifiable as Significant Books, albeit slightly obscure ones.  Holding one of these in your hand  makes you feel you’ve been let in on a well-kept literary secret.

Where exactly have all these new old books come from?

In case, like us, you’re curious about how books get rediscovered – whether it’s on purpose, by accident, at jumble sales or through word of mouth – we asked around. And the answer seems to be, all of the above…


Lost classics after a makeover
Looking good at any age

When it comes to delivering on schedule, you can’t beat a dead author

Passion within publishing houses large and small for lost and overlooked voices is an obvious starting point for the reboot process.  There are of course certain advantages to backlist publishing. A lot of the authors are dead. You don’t have to pay dead authors advances. They’re reliable at delivering on schedule, and there’s no anxious wait for the second book. Little editorial input is required, except a new introduction.

Commissioning the right introduction is a crucial step in the magic formula of revival. It requires a unique kind of matchmaking between forgotten authors and breathing, contemporary ones, to re-frame a book as part of a living conversation. A favourite contemporary writer’s response to a lesser-known writer’s work can act like a personal recommendation; say David Malouf’s introduction to The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie (Text Classics) or Hilary Mantel’s introduction to Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (Virago Modern Classics).  These are authors whose names on the cover can entice readers towards voices they might otherwise miss.


It’s surprising what people find in attics…

If growing book sales by promoting backlists makes good sense from a publisher’s perspective, what’s more surprising is how instrumental readers can be in bringing about the resurrection.  “It’s amazing how reader-driven the Text Classic series is,” says David Winter, a senior editor at Text Publishing. Old books that turn up in attics and cellars frequently prompt readers to lobby Text with demands to republish them (the series has grown from thirty to more than 130 titles – in 7 years).  According to Winter, “It was a member of a book-club who brought Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black to Penny Hueston at Text, and said you should read this.”  Text re-published the novel in 2009 and it has gone on to become a best-selling Classic, as well as a major film, The Ladies in Black, directed by Bruce Beresford (who also wrote the novel’s introduction).  

Even if it doesn’t involve rummaging in attics and cellars, Kyra Phillips, author and marketing manager at Berkelouw Books in Sydney, recognises a strong desire by readers to break through the latest must-reads to the unsung books beyond.  Booksellers are more than happy to assist – discovery is what bookshops are for, after all. And new old books offer a golden opportunity for them to do one of their favourite things, i.e. encourage readers to stray off the beaten-track into the literary overgrowth (try asking your favourite booksellers to recommend something and they’ll almost certainly surprise you). Then there’s the whole eco-system of book-clubs and bloggers who will happily reach for – and tweet about – an unearthed treasure over the familiar faces that are marshalled to greet them at aisle endcaps alongside adult colouring books.

So where do you start on this smorgasbord? Old old and work your way forward, or newish old and work backwards?  Start with names you hazily recognise but have never got round to or take the plunge into the deep end of the totally unknown? Whichever it is, one thing that’s soon striking is the hefty proportion of these forgotten writers who happen to be women, whose slide into near-obscurity came fast and steep (Elizabeth Harrower, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jolley, Christina Stead, Barbara Comyns – it’s a long list).  

“An older work makes us ask…have we moved on?

In some cases, they were writing far ahead of their time.  Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s 1920’s The Homemaker, republished by Persephone Books, describes the Knapps family, a business-minded housewife and a poetry-loving department-store clerk. Neither is much good at their job. When falling off a roof puts Lester Knapps out of action, logic intervenes, the couple swap places, and life is transformed for them and their children. Radical then, it is still remarkable now. It’s this dimension of perspective that accrues over decades that can make lost classics so compelling. Far from being a nostalgic glimpse at some bygone age, according to Kyra Phillips, “Noticing what an older work can illuminate about the current moment makes us ask, have we moved on?

Madeleine St John herself is said to have remarked that one of the problems with literature is that it takes a century, and the author’s death, to tell whether it’s actually any good. Certainly, readers seem to be of the mind that a book that can stands its ground second time round, against the mass-marketing machine that drives so much of what we consume, must have something to say.

The only drawback with new old books is that once you’re down the rabbit-hole you can lose sight of the very good new new books being published.  And of the related reality that living writers have more pressing day to day needs, such as coffee and, occasionally, shoes. If you find yourself in this ethical predicament, C S Lewis has some sound advice – just apply in reverse:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”