Italo Calvino On Why We Should Read the Classics

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Is reading the classics really necessary? What use is it to someone if they’re not interested in literature? Isn’t it the same kind of thing we used to study in school? What makes them so important?

The classics become classics for many different reasons and often excel at different things however there is much to learn from reading the classics. It is a good way to broaden your horizons while also experiencing the best quality of work in whatever genres the book falls.

Italo Calvino once wrote a short essay titled “Why Read the Classics”; in it he listed a number of reasons why one would. Let’s explore some of his reasons why.

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

The real strength of classics lies in their imaginative degree and how much they can move their reader. Classics often have more left to be discovered in terms of symbology and subtle metaphors than in the explicit text itself. In this way, the classics are like puzzles waiting to be solved by an intelligent and attentive reader.

Often times a classic is asking an implicit question or exposing the quirks of human character. In these instances, too, classics remain “incomplete” in some sense. They become waypoints for the discussion of such problems of morality or the human condition as in the case of Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre Foucault etc. And in the other case become prime examples of the nature of humanity itself which can be found in interesting glimpses everywhere from the works of Shakespeare to the works of Art Spiegelman.

Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading

The classics often appear to us like little crystals. The jagged edges of which refract light as various prisms would casting magnificent reflections upon the eyes of the beholder. But every single angle yields a different mesmerizing pattern. Such is the case with classics as well, with every different shift in context the classics appear differently, casting different visions in our minds. What we contribute through our understanding of a classic lends itself to a much larger collective imagination of the same. Hence every reading of a classic is really a rereading by which I mean a different and distinct reading than the last.

Peer Review

On a related note, the classics help us learn in association with others. A lot of what we learn about the world is informed by our everyday interactions with people and culture. As such, the discussion of a classic that is generally quite widely read can be an interesting conversation topic to discuss with someone. You can learn a lot more about a classic and consequently the world around us through the culture it has shaped and through the commentary it is making. Learning another person’s interpretation or opinion of a classic can be a deeply influential experience akin to rereading the original text itself and is extremely valuable.

A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before

Most often a classic doesn’t lend us new information that we haven’t has access to before but in fact changes our perception regarding the information. That is to say, classics show us things that we may not regularly be paying attention to. They change our perspectives in suitable ways to effectively understand everything from diverse lived realities to the realities we may not even have access to. That being said, all such constructed realities still comment on the one we all share. Even in STEM, the classics are the ones that making the best use of the information they have at hand. A few examples maybe the Principia Mathematica, Einstein’s General theory of relativity, Gödel Escher Bach etc.

Even in the case of Lord of The Rings, we can understand so much about the nature of language from the way the world has been constructed by reading The Silmarillion. We could read The Hobbit as a brilliant case study of an excellent, concise call-to-action adventure. We could read the story of ordinary men showing their innocent lack of greed and make sacrifices to triumph over unspeakable evil.

There is much to be learnt from reading the classics. Often people get discouraged because of their exposure to them through school or other compulsory avenues where they aren’t allowed to explore the full literary extent of the work. That’s why we should urge ourselves to read them now since classics are not as narrowly defined or as mirthless as they have been portrayed to be. Who knows? You might even have some fun along the way.

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