"Literature is a library", writes John Sutherland in the preface to his new book, How to be Well Read. If it's a library, it's a vast, almost infinite space; or, more specifically, two millions works 'stored dustily in the British Library vaults', according to Sutherland's estimate. Sutherland's 'guide to 500 great novels' is one of a number of recent books about great books: publications that abridge, explain, praise or even--as in Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously--save lives. The more ways there are to access the great works of English literature, the more we need signposters and summarisers to point us in the right direction, hold our hand, and try and help us find out if Heathcliff was a Murderer, or if Jane Eyre really can be Happy.
Last week Amazon got in on the act, posting a bucket list of 100 books to read in a lifetime . For a list that includes American greats (none greater than Gatsby) and contemporary bestsellers (from The Secret History to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), there remains an impressive number of the earlier classics of English literature: Austen, Brontë, Dickens, Hardy, Shelley, Wilde, and so on...
The works of many of these great authors have also been brought together this week as part of a new, free website by the British Library, Discovering Literature. The titles of the works themselves resonate across the centuries, but for some readers the context of their creation and reception can seem remote. Indeed this week also saw a survey that reported that 'four in five English teachers say that young people are struggling to identify with many of the celebrated classic authors of English Literature'.
The great wonder of the British Library is that our vaults hold not only original literary texts, but the contextual materials that help today's readers place those works in the moment of their writing, and track responses to them over the years. So: not just William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but handwritten letters from Blake to patrons and fellow artists; books that Blake annotated or defaced (in a book by the President of the Royal Academy, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, Blake scrawls: 'This Man was Hired to Depress Art'); a pocket plan of London from 1797 showing the road in Lambeth where William and Catherine Blake lived 'near where the chartered Thames doth flow'; and--the real jewel--Blake's own notebook, filled in all directions with drafts of poems, sketches, and notes.
Similarly, readers of Charles Dickens can compare illustrations of poverty-stricken characters from the first edition of A Christmas Carol with a letter to the Daily News describing his visits to miserable 'ragged schools'; or his handwritten drafts for Nicholas Nicklebywith an account of a visit to squalid Yorkshire schools in a long letter to his wife. There is even an original sketch for a reading desk, which was created for his famous reading tours (in a note at the bottom of the page he specified that it should be of 'a greyish green not too dark - The fringe to match'!).
The items themselves bring us closer to the texts, highlighting the connections to, but also the distance from, today's readers. Some texts and themes suddenly appear especially contemporary. The section on trains in Victorian literature, and the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway through Camden Town to Euston in the 1830s, suggests lessons for High Speed 2 campaigners on both sides: In Dombey and Son, Dickens might describe 'the great earthquake' produced by the railway's construction, but George Eliot in Middlemarch recognized its inevitability: 'you can't hinder the railroad: it will be made whether you like it or not.'