One of the biggest lies of teaching literature is that if you’ve taught a text, you are prepared for what happens the next time you teach it.
In truth, though, every batch of readers is different, so every time through a text, even a short and relatively straightforward text, is a different conversation.
Last week I taught a short essay by Italo Calvino called “Why Read the Classics?” It’s a perfect introduction for lit students to Calvino because he’s talking about what they think is important—good books—and, in a series of definitions that tighten like a noose, he talks them through why he thinks reading classics is important.
I taught two sections an hour apart. There was virtually no overlap in the discussions.
In the first class the student leading the discussion was of a fairly conservative educational mindset, and we spent most of our time trying to articulate the advantages of reading a shared literary canon. (And this, even though we failed in that class to find one text every person had read.) Topics ranged from the influence of ancient and medieval classics on modern masters to the structural and plot similarities of old texts and new, to the realization that human emotions and reactions haven’t really changed in 3000 years.
I tried a couple times to broach the subject of Calvino’s argument for ‘personal classics,’ but I didn’t get much traction, and the conversation kept veering back to a canon—a widening canon, to be sure, including women and authors of color and other underrepresented writers—but it was generally agreed that a list of books that well read people know was a good thing. It forms bonds between people and creates a sense of shared ownership of an intellectual past. The more cultural history we share, the more jokes we get in movies and books.
The second class never mentioned ancient texts at all. The student leading that discussion responded to the idea of Personal Classics like a kid in a candy store and opened up a discussion of favorite books and how they shape us, regardless of whether anyone read the same ones. In this class Calvino came out looking like an iconoclast, which is fair, but he’s an iconoclast steeped in Ovid and Dante, Shakespeare and Dickens.
I have had classes that met somewhere in the middle—nodding in the direction of our literary forebears and then careening off on our personal trajectories. I have also had classes who spent the whole time niggling with either Calvino’s list of definitions or his list of accepted classics.
But no class is the same. The more times I teach a text, the better prepared my opening comments are, and the larger my range of responses to topics that come up with some regularity, but really, truly… we could go anywhere. Giving students the reins in this way is not so much an act of bravery as an exciting spectacle—an intellectual event.
After nine pages of refined definitions and compelling exceptions, Calvino’s conclusion can feel like a bit of a cop out. We should read the classics (the accepted canon and our personal favorites) because it is better to have read them than not.
But he’s not wrong. We define ourselves and construct ourselves in affinity with or in opposition to what we encounter in the world. That means the more we encounter—the more characters we meet and situations we seen navigated—the finer we can tune our personalities. And the more fun we are at cocktail parties. And the better we react when classes or conversations go places we’ve never seen coming.
Read. Think. Talk. And grow. Have fun out there, y’all.