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.