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.
This is one of those essays, like Virginia Woolf’s “How Should One Read a Book”, from which I find myself wanting to quote nearly every paragraph. Of course, it makes much more sense simply to recommend that you read the whole of it for yourself, if you haven’t already done so. I will restrict myself to quoting just two more passages to convey a bit of its flavour. The first jumped out at me because, inspired by Danielle, I’ve been plotting to acquaint myself with a few classics that I feel as if I ought to have read already. According to Calvino, there should be no shame in this and, indeed, there is likely to be some advantage:
[T]o 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.
The second passage continues on this theme and, along the way, offers up a nice definition of how the experience of reading a book can be formative. In a recent post I defined a “signpost book” by contrast to a formative book, but without saying much about what constitutes a formative book. Now I can cheerfully defer to Calvino on that point:
[R]eading a book in youth can be rather unfruitful, due 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 a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us.
Calvino’s essay is full of such vivid insights and also flashes of wit. I will be thinking on it for a while, as I consider who my classic authors are and heed his call for “all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”