Type Essay
Date 1981
Pages 7

Why Read the Classics?

  • Perché leggere i classici

Calvino gives fourteen definitions of what makes a classic work of literature.

Re-reading this after having read If on a winter's night a traveler, it's astonishing how many of the ideas in this essay are represented in the novel. Or, perhaps it's the other way around. Even the uncertainty about which is the correct way to put it is very appropriate to the themes of that novel!

For example:

  1. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.

A definition such as this brings us close to the idea of the total book, of the kind dreamt of by Mallarmé.

Stéphane Mallarmé's idea is discussed in If on a winter's night a traveler from a few different angles. Jacques Polieri discusses it in Le livre de Mallarmé A Mise en Scène.


Perhaps the ideal would be to hear the present as a noise outside our window, warning us of the traffic jams and weather changes outside, while we continue to follow the discourse of the classics which resounds clearly and articulately inside our room. But it is already an achievement for most people to hear the classics as a distant echo, outside the room which is pervaded by the present as if it were a television set on at full volume.

Which echoes (is echoed by?):

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice—they won't hear you otherwise—"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or If you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

Anyway, it seems clear that the thoughts in Calvino's mind as he wrote this essay were not so far from his thoughts as he wrote the novel.

Name Role
Italo Calvino Author
Martin McLaughlin Translator


Relation Sources
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