Thursday, August 24, 2006

Italo Calvino on Reading the Classics

I’ve been reading Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” with great pleasure. In it, he considers what counts as a classic and ultimately arrives at a definition by reference to the sort of experience that reading such a book produces, on first reading and on rereading, in youth and in maturity. He goes on to emphasize the importance of determining not which books are the classics, but rather which books are your classics. On the latter point he writes: “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.” And later:

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.”

12 comments:

Carl V. said...

Great post about a book that sounds wonderful.

I love the idea that "all of us invent our own ideal libraries of classics".

I really agree with his definition of a 'classic' and if the rest of the book is like the passages you quoted it is a must read.

Matt said...

You really nail it as regard to what makes a book classics. Classics is something I always go back to re-read, something that strikes my heart cord. And it doesn't have to be a Penguin classics!

Carl V. said...

Exactly. There are 'classic' science fiction books/authors that others may or may not consider classics but I do. The name of my blog is a reference to Harry Harrison's 'classic' series of science fiction books featuring the character of the Stainless Steel Rat. The first stories are more than 60 years old and may not fit into a typical definition of "classics" according to those who only look at literature as classic. Plus there are "modern classics" that, like Calvino stated, "Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him". In that sense Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe and others are classic authors to me.

Love these ideas.

Danielle said...

Wonderful post! I must look for this book in my library now. You always have such good quotes that I need to search out the books for! I guess I have been creating my own personal classics library all along. I probably have more unread books than books I have read...but I am working on it!

Dorothy W. said...

I look forward to reading about your reading in the classics!

Sylvia said...

Thanks, I will definitely check this out! Seems there is also a later collection of his essays entitled "Why Read the Classics?"

litlove said...

I keep meaning to read more Calvino, but where does the time go? I love the idea of the personal classics. Sounds rather like the rousing call for another storm of litblogger list-making!

Stefanie said...

I've had this book on my TBR wishlist for some time now. No more dallying! When next I am buying books, it's coming home with me!

sfp said...

Yay! The library has this one. I'll be making a trip up in the tower tonight to retrieve Calvino.

bloglily said...

This sounds like a really fine essay on reading and re-reading. Thanks for excerpting it. I liked his description of the library as one in which only a portion of the space is filled with books that have been read. The shelves filled with books to be read and the provision for room to put the books that will appear and surprise us is very attractive. That's a library I'd like to spend more time in, if only there was more time to be had.

Condalmo said...

I'll add to the hosannas. (A word I've never used, and I hope I'm using it correctly, I mean to say congratulations) Great post. I'll be hunting down that essay myself.

Anonymous said...

Great idea of classic literature. Italo Calvino is always as accurate as ever. Everytime I go to a new city, I get the impression that I am just in another of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. In a way, Calvino has described every city in the world that exists through those 55-odd cities.

Generally speaking, I love classics. A whole bunch of classics are hosted at http://www.webliterature.net for free reading, and I keep enjoying it - my favorite place to read any classic any time that I want, and that too, for free.