Friday, July 11, 2008

Quotes of the Day: Italo Calvino's "Why Read the Classics?"

I have been reading through more literary criticism as of late for teaching my class next year, Literature of the Humanities, and, while in an independent bookstore in St. Louis, I found a book of posthumously published essays by Italo Calvino, who wrote one of my favorite books, Invisible Cities. This book of essays is called, Why Read the Classics?, after its opening essay. I thought such a book would be very relevant for a class that is loaded with classic authors from Homer to Virginia Woolf. In this opening essay, he speaks of both "classics" and "your own classics," noting that classics are works that will shift over time, both in which works will be included as classics and in terms that our understanding of them will shift, not just as centuries pass, but even from our youth to our old-age. Classics are those works that we may read when young, forming us in some ways, and then revisit when older, never exhausting what it has to say to us. Each rereading renews the work as a classic and transforms to work in our own eyes--each rereading is a new, perhaps startling, discovery.

I liked the following statement:

"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 has tot say and what it can only say if it is left to speak without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text itself."

I think in light of the content of this particular quotation, I should refrain from commentary! Nonetheless, as a startling, surprising work that will never exhaust its meaning with each rereading, we must contextualize ourselves. It is because we are in an ever-new situation in our lives and in our contemporary reading tastes and habits, that the classics can maintain their freshness, as we will continually see them differently:

"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 we can 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."

Italo Calvino, "Why Read the Classics," 1981.

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