Italo Calvino Essay Why Read The Classics

From the internationally-acclaimed author of some of this century's most breathtakingly original novels comes this posthumous collection of thirty-six literary essays that will make any fortunate reader view the old classics in a dazzling new light.

Learn why Lara, not Zhivago, is the center of Pasternak's masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago, and why Cyrano de Bergerac is the forerunnFrom the internationally-acclaimed author of some of this century's most breathtakingly original novels comes this posthumous collection of thirty-six literary essays that will make any fortunate reader view the old classics in a dazzling new light.

Learn why Lara, not Zhivago, is the center of Pasternak's masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago, and why Cyrano de Bergerac is the forerunner of modern-day science-fiction writers. Learn how many odysseys The Odyssey contains, and why Hemingway's Nick Adams stories are a pinnacle of twentieth-century literature. From Ovid to Pavese, Xenophon to Dickens, Galileo to Gadda, Calvino covers the classics he has loved most with essays that are fresh, accessible, and wise. Why Read the Classics? firmly establishes Calvino among the rare likes of Nabokov, Borges, and Lawrence--writers whose criticism is as vibrant and unique as their groundbreaking fiction.  ...more

Paperback, 288 pages

Published January 16th 2001 by Vintage (first published 1991)

“However vast any person's basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that she has not read.”

[Italo Calvino]

When we talk about reading a classic book in some cases we are doing it for the first time, but we say we're re-reading. This happens says Italo Calvino in an essay published after his passing by The New York Review of Books in 1986:

among those who consider themselves “very well read.”

[...]

The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.

Life stages also matter to reading -- we change, and whether we read a classic for the first time, or we re-read it, we do it through a new lens. Calvino says:

1./ to read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth.

Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates (or ought to appreciate) many more details and levels and meanings.

His definition of the term “classics” is “those books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them.” As for reading in youth, he says:

2./ [it] can be rather unfruitful, owing to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself.

Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if the book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten.

“The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence,” he says:

3./ There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth.

[...]

Hence, whether we use the verb “read” or the verb “reread” is of little importance.

4./ Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

5./ Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.

6./ A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

7./ The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.

Reading directly classic works like Homer's Odyssey puts us in touch with the adventures of Ulysses (even better when experiencing the text in the original ancient Greek), and not what later critics and writers thought about the book. Similarly, we have an easier time with Kafka's The Metamorphosis when our relationship is with the story itself, and not what the critics thought of the writer over the years.

Translation of poetic works is quite tricky. In university, it was not unusual to meet people who learned Italian and came to study there just so they could read Dante Alighieri's (Divine) Comedy in its original form.

Better to figure out what we think of something before we confront what others do.

“Schools and universities,” says Calvino, “ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite.”

When we read the text directly, we may figure out:

8./ A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before.

9./ The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.

Naturally, this only happens when a classic really works as such—that is, when it establishes a personal rapport with the reader.

[...]

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

10./ We use the word “classic” of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans.

[...]

But a classic can establish an equally strong rapport in terms of opposition and antithesis.

11./ Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.

12./ A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.

Calvino also addresses the opposite question -- why read books that are not classics? He says “Why read the classics rather than concentrate on books that enable us to understand our own times more deeply? or, Where shall we find the time and peace of mind to read the classics, overwhelmed as we are by the avalanche of current events?” How answer:

13./ A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

14./ A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

Lack of time and space is a concern. But we shouldn't give up because of these constraints. We can make do. Calvino says:

There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics. I would say that such a library ought to be composed half of books we have read and that have really counted for us, and half of books we propose to read and presume will come to count—leaving a section of empty shelves for surprises and occasional discoveries.

Finally, he says reading “the classics help us to understand who we are and where we stand,” and that means confronting ourselves with writers in multiple cultures.

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For a taste of Italo Calvino's work, I recommend (in this order) Invisible Cities, The Baron in the Trees, The Nonexistent Knight, and The Cloven Discount.

 

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