Saturday, January 1, 2011

Why Read the Classics?

Why Read the Classics?In Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino proposes that "a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers."  They are books that can be read in any era and still have meaning.  They can be read at different ages in a reader's life and continue to grow.  A classic book may feel familiar on the very first reading, and yet it changes us.  Classics "imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable" and yet "each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery."

As I embark on an adventure of discovery through reading, I have been thinking about Calvino's words.  He writes that "there is no use in reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect."  Instead, "we should only read them for love."  As I go forward into this year, I promise myself that if I start to feel like the requirements of this project are causing me to lose my sense of love for the written word, I will take a break or even abandon my project.

I feel no sense of responsibility to read these texts.  Instead, I do it because of what literature has given me before and what I have seen it give others in the past.  A classic, as Calvino says, can come "to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans" and "you cannot remain indifferent."  Books such as the ones I have put on my list have the potential to be life altering--and at the same time, foster connection between me and the generations on both sides.

When I am struggling mightily with some book I don't fully understand, I hope I can remember that although I might prefer a light contemporary read more in the immediate moment, it is often through hard work that we derive the most enjoyment in the long run.  And honestly, even in the short run it can be tremendous fun to immerse ourselves in the intellectual labors that occupy us completely.

So now, on this New Year's Day, I am reaching for my various translations of Gilgamesh.  Pencil in hand, I hereby start my own little odyssey and begin sail in the waters of classic literature, bound for adventure.

26 comments:

  1. Best wishes for this journey. :-)

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  2. One of my favorites among the classics is Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, about England and France during the French Revolution. I'd read the book again!

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  3. Jillian: Thank you! I am so pleased to have found the book blogger community!

    BBD: I have not read it since high school, but I remember it so fondly. I suppose a lot of people will be reading it this month!

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  4. I totally agree, it can be easy to fall into feeling like you ought to have read certain books, a kind of intellectual snobbery, and it almost puts me of tackling some things. But I do like that fact that you can choose to take on something that is a bit more demanding and outside the comfort zone. I kind of like those '100 greatest books' lists because they offer some interesting ideas and challenges, not to feel like you 'should' read them all. I read down the Guardian one and found I had read many of the authors but not the book on the list. Good luck with your challenge, I look forward to reading your thoughts.
    best wishes
    martine

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  5. My reading group is considering taking our 2011 selections from NLRP, thanks to you!

    I'll enjoy reading about your journey!

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  6. Best Wishes for you as you start your journey!

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  7. I'll be looking forward to your posts on how you are doing! Great idea and thanks for taking us along :)

    Happy New Year

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  8. martine: Yes! I keep worrying that I will seem like a snob by saying I am going to read these books--but I keep hoping the fact I haven't yet read many of them will keep people from worrying about that! And I keep reminding myself that calling people snobs because they read or don't read things is awfully silly, isn't it? Lovely to have you here.

    Beverly: That I led you to read from NLCR is a wondeful compliment which will stick with me all year! Thank you so much for sharing it with me.

    Sarah: I appreciate it. Thanks so much for stopping by.

    Laura: I'm so pleased to have you all coming with me, in whatever ways!

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  9. Good luck and I can't wait to read about your journey! :)

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  10. Oh, this Calvino has been on my list for ages. Your excerpts make it sound lovely. (Not that Calvino isn't always lovely.) I just read Gilgamesh, too -- review coming out tomorrow -- so we did at least that leg of the voyage together!

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  11. Good Luck. I am feeling very much the same in respect of knowing that I want to return to the pleasure literature has given me in the past but which I seem to have lost over the last two or three years. I must put the Calvino on my list. Thank you.

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  12. I am so excited that you are taking this on! I know that I have found a lot of peace within myself after taking on my own classics project. I hope you find the same.

    I love this post. I think that I need to remember this as well.

    When I first started, I had no intentions of ever reading anything besides classics during my project. I finally burned out after 11 months of straight classics, so I am giving myself the choice to pick something else up if I need a "break" from such heavy reading.

    Good luck! I look forward to reading your journey this year!

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  13. Amanda: Thank you so much for being one of the ones that really helped me discover the book blogging world. I'm so glad you are here!

    Jennie: Can't wait to see what you have to say about Gilgamesh! Calvino is a beautiful writer and in this book, surprisingly, he is extremely straight-forward as well.

    Annie: Thanks! The beginning of the Calvino is terrific for everybody--but I think I'll enjoy most of the essays more after I've read the books he is talking about. I'm looking forward to hearing what you think!

    Allie: You have set such a wonderful example--and I think you are absolutely right that breaks are essential. Thank you so much for being here.

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  14. I'm looking forward to reading about your adventures on this epic journey! Happy new year and happy sailing.

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  15. I am very glad you are letting us follow along on your journey-if you feel you are bogged down somehow-maybe you could read a classic short story-

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  16. Anbolyn: Thanks! Glad you are here fore the voyage.

    mel u: Great suggestion. I have always been a short story fan, but I had not thought of that as a way to help me out of a slump. Thanks.

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  17. It is true, isn't it? If I'm going to force myself to read something I think I ought to read but don't have an inclination for I'm not going to gain anything from it!

    It's a good reminder.:)

    All the best with your odyssey!...I'm eager to read your comments along the way.:D

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  18. A most excellent post! I look forward to reading about your "adventures" here.

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  19. I only read the title essay in this collection, but it inspired my own definition of classic as it relates to my own classics project. Calvino has so many wonderful things to say! Best of luck as you embark on your literary journey!

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  20. Breadcrumbreads: Thanks so much for the bon voyage. It is wonderful to have you here.

    Everybookandcranny: I appreciate it!

    Erin: The title essay is definitely the most accessible. I'm looking forward to reading the later essays more seriously as I read the books Calvino is discussing.

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  21. This is such a great post. I agree that sometimes light reads are easy, but rarely as rewarding. Good luck!

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  22. Avid Reader: Thanks so much. So glad you stopped by.

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  23. Open a book and you are at

    the gate of a new City

    (old Hebrew saying)

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  24. Parrish: What a perfect quote!

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  25. when I tell people I tend to read classics they say "oh, I read for fun instead." It's hard to convince people that even this is for fun!

    I ran in to a bit of "this isn't fun" in the last few weeks when I had my book group deadline for War and Peace, but for the most part, I'm with you and Mr Calvino and slowing down and making sure I'm reading for the fact that I'm reading.

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  26. Reading classics takes me into the times of bygone dreams!

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