Everyone is assembling their Classics Club reading list, pledging to read fifty classic books in five years. Or 100 or what you like. My plan is to read 500 classics in the next five years, mind and health willing, just as I have done for the last five, and the five before that, and so on. My list of books will appear to the right at regular intervals, under the heading "Currently Reading."
Which classics? Oh, you know, some of the – he hesitated and made a rippling gesture with his fingers as of an aroma being wafted away – some of the really good ones.
All right, I forced myself to use the word “classics” several times, but it does not feel natural. The critics I admire use the word rarely, or never. I can use it with qualifiers, as when I described The Immoralist as “a great classic of something or another,” and then later as “a classic in the literature of homosexuality.” But “the classics,” those can be anything.
That was not the case in the distant past, when the classics were the surviving texts of the even more distant past – Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Sanskrit texts not just hundreds but sometimes thousands of years old. As vernacular literature grew in status, sometimes because of its use or imitation of the Classical classics, the notion of a classic became more pliable. Given that the Aeneid is a high status classic, what about Dante’s Divine Comedy? Given Dante, what about Paradise Lost? And then people started taking seriously the really vulgar stuff like plays and, even worse, novels, and that was it for the classics.
I had to search, but I remembered or found a couple of good critics who are not afraid of “the classics.” One, Denis Donoghue, I will save for tomorrow; the other is Italo Calvino who wrote a 1981 article titled “Why Read the Classics?”* which really does nothing more than play with the question. One of Calvino’s definitions has circulated widely:
(6) A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
Please note that number, though: this is definition #6 of fourteen. Calvino has no qualms about contradicting himself, so while a classic is “a book that comes before other classics” (#12), a classic author is – no, not a classic but:
(11) Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.
So a classic is whatever other people say it is, and also whatever you say it is. Speaking for myself, I can be sure a book is not a classic if I have never heard of it. Calvino is more generous with his definitions. I should note that elsewhere in The Uses of Literature aka Why Read the Classics?, Calvino almost never uses the term “classics.” It is, of course, too vague.*
So what do I do, how do I organize these old books? How do I read a hundred of them every year if I do not know what they are? Good question. I will think about that.
To all of the Classics Clubbists, by the way: Best of luck! You won’t need much, since those lists are full of great books, setting aside the small number of duds, which will only heighten the flavor of the good ones. Not-actually-private note to Jillian: there are way better Walter Scott books than Ivanhoe, although none more famous, and therefore classic.
* A pointless aside: Calvino’s three essays on Fourier are really great fun.