Why Read the Classics?
I was cleaning up my reading list in Instapaper today. I saw an article that I had saved long back. It is highly recommended in my network interested in writing and literature. It is, "Why Read the Classics" by Italo Calvino. It is a short essay written twenty years ago. It is refreshing to read today. This essay is the best example I have recently come across with the Lindy effect.
I have been jealous of people who have read and re-read the classic books. I have had my trouble getting inspired by them and continue to finish it. But I listened to two 6-hour lectures by Dr Elizabeth Vandiver on Odyssey and Iliad. I found these guiding lectures to original texts very engaging and useful. But I still have not ventured into the reading of the original text. In this essay, Calvino has written some beautiful lines about what is classics and why to read them.
When defining a classic book, he says:
A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
This is such a beautiful framing. It doesn't prescribe the time it was written or by any specific writers. It is a book that speaks something to you and does that continuously.
A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known .... And this, is a surprise that gives a lot of pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.
This line resonated with me, because a good book doesn't do any earth-shattering act from outside. A good book discovers, excavates or shines a light on the things that are hidden in ours. That discovery is a joy, and it gives a high.
To read a great book for the first time in one's maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from the pleasure of having read it in one's youth. Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates many more details and levels and meanings.
Like a bottle of old wine, age and maturity bring different lenses to view the same text.
Finally, like everyone I too have this question of when to read the contemporary, non-fiction, self-help, magazines or long-form essays and when to read classics. How to balance the reading diet? Calvino again has an answer for this:
the ideal thing would be to hearken to current events as we do to the din outside the window that informs us about traffic jams and sudden changes in the weather, while we listen to the voice of the classics sounding clear and articulate inside the room...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.
It is a very short essay and I assure you that reading it is time spent very well.