Phew! I had planned the great books month for September, and congratulated myself for being clever enough to link back to school with the great books. Not so clever after all. I’ve been running ’round like a chicken with my head cut off.
Did Italo Calvino do co-op shifts at his kids’ playschool? Hockey with three boys at 7 a.m.?
Back to business.
Italo Calvino’s “Why Read the Classics?” is the title essay of a collection of Calvino’s literary criticism, published posthumously and based on material he had set aside for a collection of his best non-fiction. His translator and widow both write that the authors about whom he writes in the 35 essays–among them, Homer, Ovid, Ariosto, Diderot, Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy, Twain, Hemingway and Borges–represent his personal canon of great classics.
But why read and reread them?
Calvino’s answer is simple: The classics reveal to us our identity and our place in history.
I highly recommend this essay to any book lover. It’s short, it’s snappy, it’s carefully structured so that the argument builds rhythmically, it’s authoritative, and it brims full of Calvino’s own love of books. By excerpting bits of it, I am not doing justice to the beautiful whole.
But he is so beautifully quotable.
With that caveat, here are my magpie gleanings.
- The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them. For the fact is that the reading we do when young can often be of little value because we are impatient, cannot concentrate, lack experience in how to read, or because we lack experience of life. This youthful reading can be … literally formative in that it gives a form or shape to our future experiences, providing them with models, ways of dealing with them, terms of comparison, schemes for categorising them, scales of value, paradigms of beauty: all things which continue to operate in us even when we remember little or nothing about the book we read when young. When we reread the book in our maturity, we then rediscover these constants which by now form part of our inner mechanisms though we have forgotten where they came from.
- The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious. For this reason there ought to be a time in one’s adult life which is dedicated to rediscovering the most important readings of our youth.
- A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
- A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
- “Your” classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
And my favourite:
- Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
To this I would add:
- Don’t waste time negotiating an either/or, battle of the books debate about the place of the classics in your reading life.
Read the canon and the classics and marginalized writers and contemporary literature and and and marvel at all that the universe has to offer.