Why, Indeed?

Doing more reading of the Classics as I have been lately, it seemed only right that I pick up Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino [translated by Martin McLaughlin]—and not so much because I needed to convince myself that there really was something good with all my befuddlement and the near-constant-feeling-of-being-out-of-place of late.

Key to the book is Calvino’s title essay that sought to define what exactly a classic was—and it’s a complex definition, developed before the reader’s eyes, or written to give the impression that the writer was still working it out for himself.

I know that in the next couple of months, give or take, I’ll be referencing to Calvino’s definitions, and add to them, disagree with them—basically, modify them as I see fit. I mean, if Calvino showed me how fluid the very act of defining was, has he not already extended me the freedom to take on the process myself? So. Here’s one, for now:

Classics are the books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.

Of course this happens when a classic “text” works as a classic, that is, when it establishes a personal relationship with the reader. If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading the classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.

How many times have I heard about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? A number of people hate its guts because it was required reading for most American high schools. My darling Richard Yates (who’s birthday-ing tomorrow, if, er, he were alive) counts it among his favorites, and was an influence while he was writing his first novel. But then I read it, and I loved it, and even now [as I smugly look at it on my shelf], I am all a-tremble by how glorious it was to me. What a revelation, this book.

What else? A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle debuting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. And here, I thought the book would be starchy—and I’d lived with the Disney-fied version of Holmes most of my life. But man, it was genius. And I only thought “Man, if DNA and finger-printing were around then—” just once!

I think it’s the same with most books. Hearsay, that particular pick-it-up-dammit compulsion, and the subsequent revelations upon actual reading. Classics, however, create more discourse—or, more accurately, Classics come to us, dragging along shadows of decades [even centuries] of discourse.

But with all books come revelations. Some good, some bad; some will allow you to look at, say, a tree a different way every Thursday; some might just irrevocably alter your life.

I do have a question about that second point of Calvino’s, a question directed to the rest of humanity. I mean, why pick up a book at all, if there’s no spark? Why pick up anything at all if it doesn’t come with that little whisper of potential awesomeness?

Also. Even in duty, there’s this thrill, this anticipation—this hope of finding something within the pages that would become elemental to one’s being, or at the very least, have one gasp once or twice. Duty can be fun—not always, dammit, but it can be.

Perhaps I just damned my Lit-class-dorkus self with that statement right there, and let me cement my high school loser status with this one:

Reading the classics out of a sense of duty or respect bears fruit to endless possibilities, among them, lifelong hatred, acute boredom, or, if you’re lucky, abiding love. The kind of love that’ll inspire you to prattle on and on and on in a cobwebby corner of this being called the Internetz.

One restless night in Katipunan Avenue months ago, I panic-bought Why Read the Classics? [as well as heaps of Post-Its] from National Bookstore. It was a crazy day.

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9 comments

  1. Calvino’s Why I Read the Classics has influenced a lot of my current beliefs about reading and classifying classics. I also loved the fluidity of his definitions.

    The definition I don’t take to as much is the second one, I believe, where he says (and I paraphrase) a classic is a book that one rereads, not merely reads. I don’t do much re-reading, unless it’s Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet.

    1. I’m willing to believe that’s one of his points, though — the Classics we call “ours” [mine is, and will always be, Jane Eyre], will always be reread because they constantly call to us.

  2. Hands down, the first quote by him is true. How many times have I walked into a book swearing that I’ve read it, only to find out I really hadn’t, AND THEN realizing it was SO MUCH MORE than what I thought about it initially.

    Er, did that make sense?

    1. Yes, haha, made perfect sense. :] More mind-boggling is when you think you’ve fully, truly read a book — even wrote a paper about it, no? — and realized you’ve been wrong all along. And the epiphany that usually comes is the unbridled, giddy joy, haha, at being wrong.

  3. Love this. I’m thinking now that I really must read the Calvino.

    And I love what you say about how there can even be a thrill even in reading out of duty. There’s a thrill in being part of the cultural conversation in reading these books and joining the conversation about them that started years before we were even born.

    1. Thanks, Teresa. I was being glib when I said it was dorky to feel giddy about being part of centuries-old discourse, but it’s true. I remember reading Euripides for Classics Circuit and knowing that so many people have commented on his works, but it was so fresh and real for me, so thrilling. :]

  4. I do have this book on my shelf. Why haven’t I picked it up yet?!?!

    1. Haha, you know, given the amount of Classics you read, you have to wonder why you haven’t picked this up yet. :] This book doesn’t only contain that one essay — it’s got essays and essays on a handful of the books Calvino’s read. I, personally, had low matches with his reading list, even if I was in awe of what he said about the literature. I hazard guessing that you and Calvino might have a lot more in common, :’)

  5. [...] Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino. [...]

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