Why Read the Classics?

Why Read the Classics?

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by Italo Calvino, M. L. McLaughlin

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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…  See more details below


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.

Editorial Reviews

New Memos for the Millennium

Italo Calvino was the Scheherezade of novelists. Endlessly inventive, suspenseful, and exotic, he refused to tie things up and conclude. Reading Calvino, we are like his Mr. Palomar swimming after the sun's reflection on the water: "At every stroke of his, it retreats, and never allows him to overtake it." Instead, "The swimming ego of Mr. Palomar is immersed in a disembodied world, intersections of force fields, vectoral diagrams, bands of position that converge, diverge, break up." Calvino's world is a warm, illuminated bath of possibilities. One of the multiple narrators of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler has this to say about what Calvino termed multiplicity: "I'm producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell&a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime." If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is a book especially reminiscent of the 1001 nights; with its ten different novels suspended in the midst of their telling, it is most charming where it ought to be most frustrating.

But whereas Scheherezade told her Sultan endless stories in order to preserve her life, some of Calvino's best work has been published since his death in 1985. Both Six Memos for the Millennium, a brilliant résumé of his aesthetics, and the novel Mr. Palomar were published posthumously. The latest English-language addition to the Calvino canon is Why Read the Classics?,, a book of literary criticism smoothly translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin. Why Read the Classics? is a collection of occasional pieces—reviews and appreciations—and cannot be counted among the author's major works, but it brims with Calvino's customary intelligence and lucidity. Its title essay is particularly impressive in its offhand way, offering in six pages more brio and good sense than 20 years of American culture wars have been able to bring to the same question.

Calvino offers 14 definitions of a classic. The definitions are mordant— "1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: 'I'm rereading...', and never 'I'm reading...' "—but they are also reverent: "10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans." Still, the great books are not to be read with excessive solemnity: "It is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love." As to which books constitute the classics, they are those books "to which you cannot remain indifferent." The remaining essays of Why Read the Classics? give us an idea of which books most affected Calvino himself. Of course they also find him celebrating in other authors virtues displayed by his own works; the description of Ovid's Metamorphoses could stand at the head of Calvino's Collected Writings: "Only by accepting into his poem all the tales and the intentions behind them which flow in every direction, pushing and shoving to squeeze them into the ordered ranks of the epic's hexameters, only in this way will the poet be sure of not serving a partial design but the living multiplicity that does not exclude any known or unknown god."

"Ordered ranks" is a decisive phrase in this credo. Calvino's multiplicity is never a chaos. For all their playfulness, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and Invisible Cities are fuguelike mathematical elaborations. In the latter book, Marco Polo often recounts his fantastic travels to Kublai Khan in the language of a scientist. Of a city suspended above the earth on stilts, he says: "There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much that they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence." Such beautiful writing not only has deservedly become classic in itself, but it exemplifies the classical rhetorical virtues Calvino exalted in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. He does not mention grace, but it is one of the special features of his work that extreme self-consciousness about reading and writing becomes, rather than a source of awkwardness, an embodiment of assurance and ease. Calvino was at once a metafictionalist, at home in the postmodern welter of possibilities, and someone whom Cicero probably would have read with great pleasure and recognition. The publication of Why Read the Classics? provides a fine occasion for discovering or returning to Calvino's books as the fresh classics they are.

Benjamin Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although the title suggests that this posthumous collection was cobbled together to capitalize on the latest culture wars, the great Italian novelist who died in 1985 had himself planned to compile it. The book remains an uneven hodgepodge of essays and brief introductions. In the outstanding opening essay, Calvino begins with the lighthearted remark that "classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying `I'm rereading... ' never `I'm reading,'" then goes on to show a contagious passion for great literature of all types. Reading criticism of classics, he writes, is often a waste of time; reading, savoring, and rereading them is of much greater importance. However, many of these critical studies suffer from too much deference to the texts, and too few flights of critical fancy. The high points of the collection are the title essay and longer pieces presenting overviews of the work of great writers who were Calvino's contemporaries. He begins an engaging discussion of Hemingway (written in 1954) by remarking that there were times when "Hemingway was a god. And they were good times, which I am happy to remember, without even a hint of that ironic indulgence with which we look back on youthful fashions." His accounts of authors less known to a modern American audience will leave readers eager to sample the otherwise daunting works of Francis Ponge and Eugenio Montale. Still, this collection is on the whole surprisingly lackluster; the beloved postmodernist will ultimately be better remembered for such earlier, more spirited essay collections as The Uses of Literature. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 36 essays, Calvino--whose works are classics themselves--explores the importance of writers from Homer to Hemingway--to Borges! Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Italo Calvino's mind is endlessly fascinating.
The Hungry Mind Review
Kirkus Reviews
An irrepressibly lively collection of the late Italian novelist's literary criticism. Between the 1950s and his death in 1985, Calvino (Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, 1997, etc.) published many occasional pieces on classic works and authors. Most of these, which appeared in newspapers or as prefaces and speeches, are only a few pages long. In 1991 his wife assembled a collection of these writings that is fuller than those included in the two compilations published during his lifetime. Consequently, 11 of the 36 essays here have already been published in English. The duplication matters little: Calvino is such a congenial guide to his personal canon of great works that one is grateful to have all the essays together. The opening piece, from which the title of the book is drawn, democratically meditates on the importance of classics, which are books that "imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable." So Robert Louis Stevenson has as much claim to the category as Voltaire or Henry James. Eclectic in taste and interest, Calvino ranges widely from the ancient world (Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Pliny) to early modern (Galileo, Cardano, Ariosto) to modern (Voltaire, Diderot, and on to Queneau and Borges). What interests him most, though, is narrative fiction from Robinson Crusoe to the present. The continental heavyweights are represented in force (Stendhal, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Balzac), but Anglo-American fiction seems to hold a special appeal for him. He offers essays on Defoe, Twain, James, Stevenson, Dickens, Conrad, and Hemingway. Of course not every important writer can be included in such a work, and certain writers are strikingly absent: Kafka, Shakespeare,Joyce, and Proust, to name just a few. Calvino never set about to write an inclusive work. Still, given his importance in contemporary letters and given the posthumous character of the book, this collection would have benefited from a good afterword on the writer as critic and his tastes. It would have been interesting to know what he didn't like and why. Brisk and unpretentiously sophisticated, Calvino's literary essays are invigorating, thought-provoking, and pleasurable reading.

From the Publisher
"Calvino's essays--make clear how exhilarating the classics can be."--The Washington Post Book World

"Extraordinarily flexible and delighted readings--which will likely send you off to (re)read the classics being discussed and then summon you back again."--The New Yorker

"It's Calvino and the classics, so how can you lose?"--San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

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Product Details

Knopf Canada
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Meet the Author

ITALO CALVINO’s superb storytelling gifts earned him international renown and a reputation as “one of the world's best fabulists” (New York Times Book Review). He is the author of numerous works of fiction, as well as essays, criticism, and literary anthologies. Born in Cuba in 1923, Calvino was raised in Italy, where he lived most of his life. At the time of his death, in Siena in 1985, he was the most translated contemporary Italian writer.

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