I’m teaching Italo Calvino again, and that means starting with his essay “Why Read the Classics?,” wherein he decides ultimately that the strongest reason to read the classics is that it’s better to have read them than not. He gets there through a list of fourteen attempts to define what a classic is or does, all while crafting a definition everyone can agree upon. This is at once, I think, an important discussion and one whose reality we deal with in the effects it produces—what ends up on bookstore shelves and stays in print—and a futile discussion, but one I continue to have.
It is of course necessary to distinguish between those traits of a classic that you think everyone would benefit from, and those more personal preferences that make a work classic for you, but that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. He addresses this. He goes so far to name them “personal classics.” When I discuss the essay with my English majors, we distinguish between “Upper Case Classics” that are somehow empirically classic, and “Lower Case classics,” our own personal favorites.
Ten years of discussing this issue with English majors, most of whom self-describe as “avid readers” and so invested in the discussion, and I have come to think he’s right: it’s a muddle, and there are lots of traits of classic literature that ring true, but nothing that pins it down neatly. If we can’t pin down what’s good about classic literature among people who almost uniformly love it, we don’t have a prayer of explaining what’s good about it for every person on the planet.
Part of the problem is logistical: we can’t very often find a work of “classic” literature that everyone in the room has read. The two times we have, it has been Hamlet. So we’re trying to triangulate positive traits in or definitions of classic books by finding several books that most of the class have read, and hoping there is enough overlap that everyone can stake their claim.
This year we loosely decided that Classics should make us think and feel deeply (hopefully inspiring us to change or grow), and that within those functions, we can choose what kinds of subjects or characters or style works more effectively on each of us. This leads in to our discussion of the first novel of the quarter, If on a winter’s night a traveler, where Calvino tries to build a classic everyone can agree on, and which I’ll think more about for next week. Meanwhile, I put the questions to you: Is there something that classic literature does for us that Dan Brown or JD Robb or Tom Clancy don’t do? What do we gain from reading something old, attested, and approved by previous generations?