Book reviews

Why Read the Classics?

I never tire of reading Italo Calvino first pages of his book Why Read the Classics. These are some of his points and definition of a classic. I particularly love when he says schools and universities should present you with many classics, but it is that reading for love we do of them outside the classroom, what has value for us, and what truly means reading the classics.

And I cannot stress his advice of reading the original text, because, as he points out, books about classics (critics books, notes, introductions, books about classics of any kind) cannot say about the classic more than the classic itself! Many times they have created, for me, an aura of impossibility, difficulty, and dislike… Take, for example, The Imitation of Christ, a book I thought unapproachable, and that has surprised me with its readability and relevance. (Maybe Ronald Knox’s translation helps to my understanding, but I am very able to take what is of relevance, and place in context that which pertains to monastery life). Or Spencer’s Fairy Queen. I am reading the First Book of that poem, and it has presented itself as an enjoyable poem with allegories that are familiar, -others not so much-, but in any case, very approachable and highly enjoyable read.

  • The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, “I am rereading . . . ” and never “I am reading . . . “
  • We use the words “classics” for books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them
  • The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.
  • Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.
  • Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.
  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
  • The classics are the books that come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).
  • A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives much pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.
  • The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them.
  • We use the word “classic” of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the “total book,” as Mallarmé conceived of it.
  • 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.
  • A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.
  • A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.
  • A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

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