"A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." - Mark Twain
I've spent the last couple months working on one of the more difficult aspects of my job: weeding. Weeding (or "deaccessioning," to use the formal term) is the process of removing outdated, damaged, or significantly underused materials from the collection to make room for newer, more useful (and hopefully more appealing) titles. The first of couple categories are usually pretty easy to deal with-- no one's going to be checking out a title on exciting new computing careers from 1987, or a book that's been chewed on and smells like old gym socks. It's the last category where weeding gets painful for me, particularly in speculative fiction.
Sure, there are titles that are easier to weed than others-- those that never lived up to their hype, or had a brief spurt of popularity but no staying power. Some may be great reads (they wouldn't be in our collection if they weren't well-reviewed) but just aren't a good fit for us-- they don't appeal to our local reading community. My mantra when I'm weeding titles like these is "every book, its reader." They may not be fulfilling their potential on our shelves, but getting weeded won't be the end for these books. They'll go on our sale shelves, and hopefully find a good home with someone else to love them. (And if they don't... let me live with my illusions.)
There's a last category of dusty books, though, that really makes my librarianly heart sad: the unread classics. At the risk of sounding stodgy, these are the books that really deserve to be read at least once by all fans (or prospective fans) of the genre. True, these titles are at little risk for discard; they frequently wind up on assigned reading lists, or as the subject of major motion pictures. Future use aside, I also have to consider the impact of my weeding choices on the collection as a whole-- New City has a great selection of classic spec fic, and I want to maintain that strength. I'd no more toss out Stanislaw Lem than I'd toss, say, Charles Dickens. (Given personal preference I'd be more willing to toss Dickens.) Still, it always pains me to see a classic title come up on the chopping block.
I believe there's a reason these works are underread, and it has far more to do with people's preconceptions about them than it does with their readability. In his introduction to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Stephen King notes, "I think most of us have a slight inferiority complex about books." This is doubly true of any book branded a classic, particularly when it's been loaded down with literary awards. To a lot of us, the word "classic" smells of schoolwork and required reading; we expect something dense and dry. Who wants to slog through that in their time off? I suspect many people are even a bit intimidated by the label, fearing that whatever wears it will be beyond their comprehension. Classics are for people with degrees in literature, they might think. Maybe they could just catch the movie version sometime-- that'd be just as good, right? (Usually not-- and expecting book and movie versions to be the same is another oft-damaging preconception.) Other readers may be turned off by the age factor: how could a book written in 1886 possibly speak to people from 2011?
You might be surprised. The library's speculative fiction book group, "In Other Worlds," has been reading classic spec fic for our spring selections: Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and (this coming Wednesday) Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. None of them have been the trite "creature features" to which Hollywood has largely reduced them. Stevenson, for example, brings Jack the Ripper's London alive for the modern reader: he describes a city by turns genteel and menacing, with thick fogs that steal away familiar streets and turn them into a nebulous alien landscape overnight. He introduces us to a man with a sterling reputation in society who performs unspeakable acts when his conscience is freed by a mask of supposed anonymity. (Sound like any politicians you know?) Of course, the villain's true identity was no surprise to anyone in our group (or to any English-speaking 21st century audience, I imagine), but Stevenson still managed to grip us all with his compelling descriptions, the slow, winding suspense of his plot, and his unexpected glimmers of humor and courage.
If you're still hesitant to pick up a classic, bear in mind that most of speculative fiction's masterpieces didn't start out as capital-L "Literature"-- until recently, most critics tended to regard our genre as the dregs of literature. (Some still do, alas.) A lot of SF's classic works were published as serials or pulps, written on dime-store paper with an adventure-craving (but otherwise average) fan in mind as audience. Books like these didn't become classics because they impressed the critics. No, these are the books that fans read and re-read until the bindings fell apart, and new fans continue to do that with them today.
Classic books, like classic cars and classic clothes, are simply stories that never go out of fashion. They've stood the test of time, and endured. They're not about specific technologies, or social issues that can be confined to a specific era or place. Classics are about us, those questions and contradictions and moments of pain and beauty that make us human. They have something that appeals to every generation, to every class, race, and gender. (They're also the books that inspired  many of our favorite modern authors.) As fabulist Italo Calvino put it, "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."
If you're looking for a really great read to kick off your summer, why not give one of those titles you "always meant to read" a try? Those worn covers often hide something wonderful. If you won't do it for yourself... think of the dusties. Do it for your librarian.
Here's a sampling of underread classic speculative fiction, just to get you started:
The Exorcist by Willam Peter Blatty (Horror Blatty)
The Ages of Chaos by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Fantasy Bradley)
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (SF Butler)
Alone with the Horrors by Ramsey Campbell (Horror Campbell)
Nova by Samuel R. Delany (SF Delany)
Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick (SF Dick)
The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson (Fantasy Dickson)
The Between by Tananarive Due (Horror Due)
Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist (Horror Feist)
The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (Horror Finney)
Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (SF Harrison)
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (Fantasy Holdstock)
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (Horror Short Stories Jackson)
It by Stephen King (Horror King)
Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury (SF Kingsbury)
Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty (SF Lafferty)
The Secret Books of Paradys by Tanith Lee (Horror Lee)
The Three of Swords by Fritz Leiber (Fantasy Leiber)
The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy by Stanislaw Lem (SF Lem)
Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft (Horror Short Stories Lovecraft)
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (Fantasy Martin)
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock (Fantasy Moorcock)
Black God's Kiss by C. L. Moore (Fantasy Moore)
The Solar Queen by Andre Norton (SF Norton)
Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin (SF Panshin)
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (Fantasy Peake)
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (Horror Poe)
The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl (SF Pohl)
The Healer's War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (Fantasy Scarborough)
City by Clifford D. Simak (SF Simak)
Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith (SF Smith)
Galveston by Sean Stewart (SF Stewart)
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. (SF Tiptree)
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (SF Vinge)
The First Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny (Fantasy Zelazny)