Why Read the Classics?

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.”

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Italo Calvino (15 October 1923 – 19 September 1985) was an Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels. His best known works include the Our Ancestors trilogy (1952–1959), the Cosmicomics collection of short stories (1965), and the novels Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979).

Admired in Britain, Australia and the United States, he was the most-translated contemporary Italian writer at the time of his death.

The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’ he says in the first chapter of this outstanding book and then goes on to show a contagious passion for great literature of all types.  Reading criticism of classics, he writes, is often a waste of time; reading, savoring, and rereading them is of much greater importance. However, many of these critical studies suffer from too much deference to the texts, and too few flights of critical fancy. The high points of the collection are the title essay and longer pieces presenting overviews of the work of great writers who were Calvino’s contemporaries.

I discovered Italo Calvino during my undergradute years and the first book I read of him was the “Why Read The Classics?”  If you are a classic book lover like me, this book is perfect for you. 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. So, today I want to talk about this fantastic book briefly.

Here are some highlights from the book;

First of all I like Stendhal because only the individual moral thriller, historical thriller, life exertion in it constitute a whole: this is the linear thriller of the novel. I like Pushkin, because it means clarity, irony and seriousness. I like Hemingway because it means simplicity, exaggeration, desire for happiness, sorrow. I like Stevenson because he’s flying. Chekhov is my companion, because he does not go any further than he goes. I like Conrad because he watches in deep water and does not sink. I like Tolstoy because sometimes I feel like “Oh, I understand now how you do it”, but I do not understand anything. I like Manzoni, because I hated it until yesterday. /…/ I like Gogol, because it is clearly, badly and distorted. I like Dostoyevsky because he crushes stories and characters consistently, angrily and irrationally. I like Balzac, because it is conservative. I like Kafka because it’s real. I like Maupassant because it’s superficial. I like Mansfield, because it’s smart. I like Fitzgerald because he is not happy with it. I like Radiguet, because youth never comes back. I like Svevo because I also need to get old..

All this is true both of the ancient and of the modern classics. If I read the Confessions, but I cannot forget all that the spiritual adventure of Tolstoy have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are distortions or expansions. When reading Kafka, I cannot avoid approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective “Kafkaesque,” which one is likely to hear every quarter of an hour, applied indiscriminately. If I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, I cannot help thinking how these characters have continued to be reincarnated right down to our own day.

 The reading of a classic must give us a surprise or two vis a vis the notion that we had of it.  A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way.
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