This is why you should read the classics...

Luigi Silori and Italo Calvino (1958). Photo by Duccio55, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia.

Why Read the Classics?Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second book of Calvino's work, and the only of his non-fiction works, that I have read. The first was Marcovaldo, a collection of short stories about an Italian peasant who attempts to "reconcile country habits with urban life". I was aware that Calvino was regarded as something of a philosopher, and the title of this work intrigued me after reading Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. What I found interesting about Why Read the Classics?, which is effectively a collection of book reviews, is that Calvino covers from Homer to the present, adding a touch of personal insight into each review, and a depth that is still beyond my reading of the Great Books. Calvino does what I have been doing for some time now (albeit I do this nowhere near as well). I suspect that the individual essays in this collection were written as Calvino read or re-read these classic authors and their books. The first essay, which provides the title of the book, provides Calvino's list of fourteen definitions of a "classic book". In the introduction, the translator, Martin McLaughlin, uses Calvino's definitions to put forward an all-encompassing definition that I find useful in identifying "classic" works with more than just "old" works:
A classic work is a work which (like each of Calvino's texts) retains a consciousness of its own modernity without ceasing to be aware of other classic works of the past.
Of the thirty-six essays, only eleven of the essays had appeared in English before. This immediately strikes me as fortunate, yet, at the same time, somewhat saddened that there is so much that monolingual readers like myself will never have the opportunity to read. Calvino provides confirmation of Mortimer Adler's view on reading classic works, and justifies my own stance on using my time for a first-hand reading, even though I must admit that a good deal of my learning up until completing my PhD was based on secondary sources (beyond journal articles and historical texts). Calvino suggests that:
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.
What I also find interesting is that Calvino explains what I feel when re-reading classic works that I may not have understood when I was younger. For example:
When we reread the book in our maturity, we then rediscover these constants which by now form part of our inner mechanisms though we have forgotten where they came from.
This leads me to another of Calvino's definitions which rings true:
A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
I have experienced this many times before, however, it was most obvious recently when reading John Stuart Mill and Ruskin. In yet another definition, Calvino explains this further:
A classic does not necessarily teach us something that we did not know already; sometimes we discover in a classic something which we had always known (or had always thought we knew) but did not realise that the classic text had said it first (or that the idea was connected with the text in a particular way). And this discovery is also a very gratifying surprise, as is always the case when we learn the source of an idea, or its connection with the text, or who said it first.
Again, Calvino justifies my own approach. For example, he says that a "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" (p. 8). That is not to say that I consider myself to be particularly wise. Indeed, Calvino tells me that my reason for alternating classics with contemporary materials might be "the result of an impatient, nervy temperament, of someone constantly irritated and dissatisfied". This is probably closer to the truth. In Calvino's essay on the Odyssey he discusses the nature of folktales. In this way he echoes Aristotle's Poetics. For example, he looks at stories of rags to riches or the more complex riches to rags and back to riches again and how these different types of misfortune are enjoyed by all because these represent "the restoration of an ideal order belonging to the past" (p. 13). In some ways, this explains why I like the classics, yet Calvino warns us that:
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 (p. 8).
So Calvino is not simply a "stuck in the mud", but for me, he places the classics in an appropriate context. While much was familiar in these essays, there was also a good deal of work that was unfamiliar to me. Many of these authors did not produce their works in English, hence my unfortunate lack of knowledge. One such author, Stendhal, introduced me to the interesting idea that "liberty and progress... was suffocated by the Restoration" (p. 136), and that Pliny considered there to be a "tacit accord" reached between peoples about "three cultural facts". These include "the adoption of the (Greek and Roman) alphabet; shaving of men's faces by Barber; and the marking of the hours of the day on a sundial" (pp. 44-5). There are some familiar authors too, including Dickens, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and Ernest Hemingway. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that the behaviourist, B.F. Skinner, makes an appearance (p. 116), albeit briefly. There is little to be gained from going over each of the essays, however, I have kept notes that I can return to in accordance with Mortimer Adler's rules for reading. The concluding essay, Parvese and Human Sacrifice, provides an interesting response to politics that is relevant today: though he were shrugging his shoulders because everything is already clear and is not worth expending any more words (p. 263).
However, it is "The Philosophy of Raymond Queneau", the second last essay, that concludes the work best for me, in that the written word need not be pompous and unwelcoming, where a writer could make the reader:
...feel on the same level as he is, as they were about to play a round of cards with friends... [yet such a writer] is in reality someone with a cultural background that can never be fully explored, the background whose implications and presuppositions, explicit or implicit, one can never exhaust (p. 246).
Calvino wrote many other works, including novels and non-fiction, and although I understand he was a very private person, his letters have recently been published. I think I shall read more of his fiction and non-fiction before I delve further into the his private life. But clearly, there is much to be learnt from reading Calvino.