Monday 28 April 2014

Calvino, Italo "Why Read the Classics?"

Calvino, Italo "Why Read the Classics?" (Italian: Perché leggere i classici?) 1991

The author's "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller" (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore) from 1979 was one of the most weirdest books I have ever read but I truly enjoyed it.

Lately, I have come across many quotes about reading by Italo Calvino, many of them were mentioned to be from this book. So, I just had to read it.

I have read a few of the books he mentioned and I must say, those were the parts of the book I enjoyed most. With some of the others, I had no idea what he was talking about. I still liked reading it because he has a wonderful way of writing (and the translator did a good job, too).

If you enjoy reading classic literature, this is a great way of getting a list of worthwhile books to read and maybe getting a glimpse of what it might be.

He has a wonderful way of starting his book with an introductory essay "Why Read the Classics?" Many of the titles of the different chapters are great quotes about reading.

"1.    The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, "I am rereading . . . " and never "I am reading . . . "

2.    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

3.    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.

4.    Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

5.    Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.

6.    A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

7.    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).

8.    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.

9.    The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvellous than we had thought from hearing about them.

10.    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.

11.    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.

12.    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.

13.    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.

14.    A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

Italo Calvino, "Why Read the Classics" (excerpt)

I especially liked the quote at the end of this essay "Why Read the Classics?":
"And if anyone objects that they are not worth all that effort, I will cite Cioran (not a classic, at least not yet, but a contemporary thinker who is only now being translated into Italian): 'While the hemlock was being prepared, Socrates was learning a melody on the flute. "What good will that be to you?", he was asked. "At least I will earn this melody before I die."

So, the book encouraged me to read even more classics than I have done before and also to put more of Italo Calvino's works on my wish list.

Often, when I don't speak the original language, I read the translation into German, not necessarily because it is my mother tongue but mainly because there are so many more books translated into German than into English that I have the feeling those translations are better. Anyway, this one I read in English because most of the books he describes are written in English, too.

This is a list of the books  the author talks about at length, he mentions a lot more:
Ariosto, Ludovico "Orlando Furioso
Balzac, Honoré de "Ferragus"
Borges, Jorge Luis "The Library of Babel"
Conrad, Joseph "Lord Jim"
Bergerac, Cyrano de "The Other World, or the States and Empires of the Moon"
Defoe, Daniel "Robinson Crusoe"
Dickens, Charles "Our Mutual Friend"
Diderot, Denis "Jacques, the Fatalist and his Master"
Flaubert, Gustave "Three Tales"
Gadda, Carlo Emilio "Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana" (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana)
Galilei, Galileo "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World systems"
Cardano, Geralomo "De Consolatione"
Hemingway, Ernest "The Old Man and the Sea
- "A Farewell to Arms"
Homer "The Odyssey"
James, Henry "Daisy Miller"
Martorell, Joanot "Tiranto lo Blanc"
Montale, Eugenio "Forse un mattino andando" (Perhaps one Morning Walking in an Air of Glass"
Nezami, Ganjavi "The Seven Princesses"
Ortes, Giammaria "A Calculation of the Pleasures and Pains of Human Life"
Ovid "Metamorphoses"
Pasternak, Boris "Doctor Zhivago"
Pavese, Cesare "The Moon and the Bonfires"
Plini the Elder "Natural History"
Pongye, Francis "The Voice of Things"
Queneau, Raymond "Cent mille milliards de poèmes" (One Hundred Million Million Poems)
Stendhal Marie-Henri Beyle) "The Charterhouse of Parma"
- "The Red and the Black"
Stevenson, Robert Louis "The Pavilion on the Links"
Tolstoy, Leo "Two Hussars"
- "War and Peace"
Twain, Mark "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"
Voltaire "Candide, ou l'Optimisme" (Candide, or Optimism)
Xenophon "Anabasis"

From the back cover:

"From the internationally-acclaimed author of some of this century's most breathtakingly original novels comes this posthumous collection of thirty-six literary essays that will make any fortunate reader view the old classics in a dazzling new light.

Learn why Lara, not Zhivago, is the center of Pasternak's masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago, and why Cyrano de Bergerac is the forerunner of modern-day science-fiction writers. Learn how many odysseys The Odyssey contains, and why Hemingway's Nick Adams stories are a pinnacle of twentieth-century literature. From Ovid to Pavese, Xenophon to Dickens, Galileo to Gadda, Calvino covers the classics he has loved most with essays that are fresh, accessible, and wise. Why Read the Classics? firmly establishes Calvino among the rare likes of Nabokov, Borges, and Lawrence - writers whose criticism is as vibrant and unique as their groundbreaking fiction."


  1. Great presentation, thanks for including a list. It makes sense to read it in English, but as I'm teaching myself Italian (with the express goal to read this author in Italian!), I'm thinking it might be easier to read this nonfiction than his novels, for now.

    1. That's possible. I am not there, yet, to read a book in Italian. Maybe one day. I try to improve any of the languages I once started on Duolingo which is a good help.

      I wish you good luck. And yes, I always try to include a list, I think we both love lists. LOL

  2. Thanks so much. I just found the kindle book in Italian. And even on my kindle app on my phone, I can get Italian-English translations of words I'm not sure. Totally thrilled about this!

    1. That does sound like a great incentive to read from a Kindle. Glad you found it.

  3. Ah ah, two years later after my above comments, and after many Duolingo sessions, I just finished the whole book in Italian. There are also now so many more classics I want to read, all because of Calvino's fascinating essays on them. Some I had never heard of.
    And because 2023 is a Calvino's big anniversary year, I am now reading his The Baron in the Trees, also in Italian

    1. Well, that's fantastic, Emma. Did you have Italian lessons before or was that the only time you spent learning it?
      In any case, Calvino is fantastic. "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller" is still one of my favourite books ever. And this one here, so many suggestions, absolutely great.

  4. An interesting list, I've read about half of them but have read many more not on his list...He doesn't include Zola, for example, or Dostoyevsky. But that's true of any canon, I suppose, and all we can do is just choose as wisely as we can, and then find the time to read as much as we can!

    1. He might have mentioned them, Lisa, but I only listed those where he said a bit more. And, as you say, any list is personal, even if it's done by an institution.