Classics used to sell themselves.
You would go into a bookstore, see a paperback of Crime and Punishment and start to read it, and then because you couldn’t finish it while sitting cross-legged on the floor, you would buy it for a dollar and go off with your ragged friends to the Union and do your homework, or read your Dostoevsky…probably read your Dostoevsky.
You had your priorities.
Thus we all read the classics.
We were gung-ho on the Russians. You could buy them anywhere. One of my friends was pretty much a Gogol person: she was always laughing, “Oh, no, no…” over “The Overcoat” or Dead Souls. Another was a true Chekhovian, who grew a Chekhov-style beard and read “The Lady with the Dog” over and over. I was a Tolstoy person. I read the Signet paperback of Anna Karenina on a cot under a workbench in the basement of a writer friend’s where I lived free for a few months. “You’re the only person who can say you literally sleep under a workbench,” he quipped. Well, I don’t know about that… but I certainly read Anna Karenina under a workbench.
Barnes and Noble is the last bookstore in our town, except for a tiny indie with hardly any books that is an obvious tax write-off, and which I refuse to support. And, yes, B&N here has Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but only in the Barnes & Noble classics editions. (Those are fine, but I prefer Penguins, Modern Library, or Oxford.)
Do people read classics if they can’t find the classics? Dartmouth College recently did some study that found contemporary writers are less influenced by the canon than they used to be. Is that because they can’t find the classics?
I’m sure some classics sell themselves. Jane Austen must fly out the door, there are so many movies and TV miniseries. I would think the same of Dickens.
One has to go to used bookstores for the more obscure classics. Or to Iowa City, which still has good used and new bookstores.
Of course there’s always online.
I think of the days when my friend bought copies of Dead Souls for all of us on her father’s charge card at Brentano’s, and wish I could still walk into a bookstore and guarantee finding a copy of Dead Souls, or anything by Gogol.