Why Read the Classics?

Italo Calvino

Published by Pantheon, 1999
ISBN 10: 0679415246 / ISBN 13: 9780679415244
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Synopsis: Italo Calvino was not only a prolific master of fiction, he was also an uncanny reader of literature, a keen critic of astonishing range. Why Read the Classics? is the most comprehensive collection of Calvino's literary criticism available in English, accounting for the enduring importance to our lives of crucial writers of the Western canon. Here--spanning more than two millennia, from antiquity to postmodernism--are thirty-six immediately relevant, elegantly written, accessible ruminations on the writers, poets, and scientists who meant most to Calvino at different stages of his life.

Following the title essay, which explores fourteen definitions of "the classic," Calvino offers writings that are at once critical appraisals and personal appreciations of, among others: Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Pliny, Nezami, Ariosto, Cardano, Galileo, Defoe, Voltaire, Diderot, Ortes, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Twain, Henry James, Stevenson, Conrad, Pasternak, Gadda, Montale, Hemingway, Ponge, Borges, and Queneau.

At a time when the Western canon and the very notion of "literary greatness" have come under increasing disparagement by the vanguard of so-called multiculturalism, Why Read the Classics? gives us an inspiriting corrective.

Review: Why read Italo Calvino's book on the classics? Because it passes his own test for what a classic is, and its brisk prose can blast your concept of the word clean of the dusty associations that cling to it. Calvino gives 14 offbeat definitions of classic, my favorite being "a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off." His sharp essays on Conrad, Dickens, Diderot, Flaubert, Ovid, and others constitute an act of self-criticism too, a novelist's imaginative autobiography. In 1955, when rave-reviewing Robinson Crusoe, he called Daniel Defoe the "inventor of modern journalism." In 1954, he overcame his disgust with Hemingway's life "of violent tourism," coolly assessed his dry heights and sodden depths, and called himself Papa's apprentice. And the 1984 piece on Borges shows who influenced Calvino most once he'd become a master himself.

From both the American and the Argentinian, Calvino learned to be concise, and his quick sketches of books like the "unqualified masterpiece" Our Mutual Friend provide a contact high--one wants to drop everything and head straight to a library, so infectious is his enthusiasm. "How many young people will be smitten" by Stendhal's recently, brilliantly retranslated Waterloo-era adventure The Charterhouse of Parma, he writes, "recognizing it as the novel they had always wanted to read... the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life." Like a great teacher, Italo Calvino distills a writer's essence in a vivid phrase: money, for instance, serves as "the motive force of Balzac's narrative, the true test of feeling in Dickens; but in Mark Twain money is a game of mirrors, causing vertigo over a void." --Tim Appelo

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Title: Why Read the Classics?
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Good

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