In our democratic century, is there much reason to read a book someone else tells you to read?
An old friend just gave me a copy of Italo Calvino's Why Read the Classics? Calvino in his introduction gives us a dozen very good answers to this question, followed by essays on the works of Homer, Ovid, Defoe, Voltaire, Conrad, and many others. (Not one woman in that lot, but that's a subject for another day.)
Calvino offers simple and persuasive answers to this question. He defines a classic in terms of the sense of discovery the reader has on reading it, the richness of the experience, the inexhaustible insights it offers, its originality, its world view, its special influence on the reader, and its lasting appeal.
Once we read a classic, either we feel we're done with it, thank heaven, or we must own the book so that we can read it again and again. But in our democratic century, is there much reason to read a book someone else tells you to read? No. Read Sidney Sheldon if you like, or Chetan Bhagat. The idea that some books are superior to others can sound dangerous to those who actually internalise the lessons of the best literature.
You no longer need to read The Prince to understand why someone is described as ‘Machiavellian'. Just go to Wikipedia. On the other hand, it's difficult to key in ‘Kafkaesque' in the middle of a seminar or even at a party. I was once on a cruise ship with a large group of students aged 12 to 14. The professor in charge of them had me lecture them one evening on the art of writing. I first asked the nearest students what they had most recently read, bracing myself for Harry Potter. The first boy I called on said he had just finished The Odyssey. I gave silent thanks that I had read this epic just a month before, that I had a solid foundation of books holding me up, and launched into my talk, warmed at the fire of their minds.
Not everyone's self-image hinges on being conversant with the canon. Sometimes, one simply feels that Sidney Sheldons do not satisfy the soul. Since I began writing this column, readers have often asked how they can move on and move up in their reading. They already know why they want to read the classics, but if an escalator is handy, they would like to know. Though I answered each such seeker individually, there were some suggestions in common.
For the big names, start with the short, gripping, perhaps humorous works. Shakespeare's Macbeth. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Dickens' Great Expectations. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Reading the short works gets us used to the language of that writer's time and region. We may or may not pick up the larger works later, but at least we will know which authors might feed our souls.
So if you're still asking why, there is perhaps no real answer. If you're asking how, let's get to work.