Why Read the Classics

Why read Italo Calvino's book on the classics? Because it passes his own test for what a classic is, and its brisk prose can blast your concept of the word clean of the dusty associations that cling to it. Calvino gives 14 offbeat definitions of classic, my favorite being "a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off." His sharp essays on Conrad, Dickens, Diderot, Flaubert, Ovid, and others constitute an act of self-criticism too, a novelist's imaginative autobiography. In 1955, when rave-reviewing __, he called Daniel Defoe the "inventor of modern journalism." In 1954, he overcame his disgust with Hemingway's life "of violent tourism," coolly assessed his dry heights and sodden depths, and called himself Papa's apprentice. And the 1984 piece on Borges shows who influenced Calvino most once he'd become a master himself.