Why Read the Classics?
September 27, 2012 § 6 Comments
I am reading two essays at the moment: Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, and Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino!
The first appears in the book of the same name, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin in 1999. The second, I stumbled upon at The New York Review of Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and dated 1986.
I was struck by a difference in each version of a sentence in Calvino’s ninth definition of a Classic (the essay ventures fourteen interrelated definitions of what constitutes a Classic Book). In it, he is talking about the personal relationship or rapport that ideally occurs when a classic text ‘works’ upon the reader as a classic:
“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.” (McLaughin)
“If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.” (Creagh)
Lord, if someone had shown me McLaughin’s version when I was an impatient, distracted, undergraduate struggling to get it on with Joyce and Chaucer, I may never have completed my degree; I would have been out of that bedroom so fast!
Of course I see where he is coming from in both of these translations: ‘duty’ and ‘should’ are not desirable entry points into a book. And respect is won, rather than assumed and given blindly. But there is a difference in meaning and implication in each of them that I think is interesting.
This is pointless! and It’s no use! strike me as the perfect ‘out’ a sophomoric reader is just waiting to pounce upon. The decisiveness of the words If there is no spark seem like the conclusions of someone expecting instant and unequivocal passion. Not necessarily young, but dare I say immature? Whereas, If the spark doesn’t come seems less impulsive, more considered. It implies an attempt over time. I tried. I worked at it. But it did not come. It’s a pity.
I see both translations, both types of reader, in myself. But I hope I am more the second type these days. How long does one try at something that just isn’t working is a valid question. Yet so often we give up too easily, especially when it’s something that we truly want, and what we truly want is often complex and perplexing and work. Love is work. Sometimes.
And if the spark doesn’t come, the exercise isn’t pointless; all it is is a pity. And there are plenty more classics in the sea.