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Ask Calvino: Why Read the Classics?

March 27, 2009

“Let us begin by putting forward some definitions.

1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…”

At least this is the case with those people whom one presumes are ‘well read’; it does not apply to the young, since they are at an age when their contact with the world, and with the classics which are part of that world, is important precisely because it is their first such contact.

Italo Calvino (courtesy Random House)

Italo Calvino (courtesy Random House)

The iterative prefix ‘re-‘ in front of the verb ‘read’ can represent a small act of hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, all one need do is point out that however wide-ranging any person’s formative reading may be, there will always be an enormous number of fundamental works that one has not read.

Put up your hand anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus or Thucydides.

7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

…If I read The Odyssey, I read Homer’s text but can’t forget all the things that Ulysses’ adventures have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering whether these meanings were implicit in the original text or if they are later accretions, deformations or expansions of it. If I read Kafka, I find myself approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ which we hear constantly being used to refer to just about anything. If I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Dostoevsky’s The Devils I cannot help reflecting on how the characters in these books have continued to be reincarnated right down to our own times.

Reading a classic must also surprise us, when we compare it to the image we previously had of it. That is why we can never recommend enough a first-hand reading of the text itself, avoiding as far as possible secondary bibliography, commentaries, and other interpretations. Schools and universities should hammer home the idea that no book which discusses another book can ever say more than the original book under discussion; yet they actually do everything to make students believe the opposite. There is a reversal of values here which is very widespread, which means that the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used like a smokescreen to conceal what the text itself has to say and what it can only say if it is left to speak without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text itself.

12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the geneology of classic works.

At this point I can no longer postpone the crucial question of how to relate the reading of the classics to the reading of all other texts which are not classics. This is a problem which is linked to questions like: ‘Why read the classics instead of reading works which will give us a deeper understanding of our own times?’  and ‘Where can I find the time and the ease of mind to read the classics, inundated as we are by the flood of printed material about the present?

Homer (courtesy davidgunn.org)

Homer (courtesy davidgunn.org)

Of course, hypothetically the lucky reader may exist who can dedicate the ‘reading time’ of his or her days solely to Lucretius, Lucian, Montaigne, Erasmus, Quevedo, Marlowe, the Discourse on Method, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Coleridge, Ruskin, Proust and Valery, with the occasional sortie into Muraski or the Icelandic Sagas. And presumably that person can do all this without having to write reviews of the latest reprinting, submit articles in the pursuit of a university chair, or send in work for a publisher with an imminent deadline. For this regime to continue without any contamination, the lucky person would have to avoid reading the newspapers, and never be tempted by the latest novel or the most recent sociological survey. But it remains to be seen to what extent such rigor could be justified or even found useful. The contemporary world may be banal and stultifying, but it is always the context in which we have to place ourselves to look either backwards or forwards. In order to read the classics, you have to establish where exactly you are reading them ‘from,’ otherwise both the reader and the text tend to drift in a timeless haze. So what can we say is that the person who derives maximum benefit from a reading of the classics is the one who skilfully alternates classic readings with calibrated doses of contemporary material. And this does not necessarily presuppose someone with a harmonious inner calm: it could also be the result of an impatient, nervy temperament, of someone constantly irritated and dissatisfied.

Perhaps the ideal would be to hear the present as a noise outside our window, warning us of the traffic jams and weather changes outside, while we continue to follow the discourse of the classics which resounds clearly and articulately inside our room. But it is already an achievement for most people to hear the classics as a distant echo, outside the room which is pervaded by the present as if it were a television set on at full volume.”

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