Why Read the Classics?
Italo Calvino. Pantheon Books, $26 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41524-4
Although the title suggests that this posthumous collection was cobbled together to capitalize on the latest culture wars, the great Italian novelist who died in 1985 had himself planned to compile it. The book remains an uneven hodgepodge of essays and brief introductions. In the outstanding opening essay, Calvino begins with the lighthearted remark that ""classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying `I'm rereading... ' never `I'm reading,'"" then goes on to show a contagious passion for great literature of all types. Reading criticism of classics, he writes, is often a waste of time; reading, savoring, and rereading them is of much greater importance. However, many of these critical studies suffer from too much deference to the texts, and too few flights of critical fancy. The high points of the collection are the title essay and longer pieces presenting overviews of the work of great writers who were Calvino's contemporaries. He begins an engaging discussion of Hemingway (written in 1954) by remarking that there were times when ""Hemingway was a god. And they were good times, which I am happy to remember, without even a hint of that ironic indulgence with which we look back on youthful fashions."" His accounts of authors less known to a modern American audience will leave readers eager to sample the otherwise daunting works of Francis Ponge and Eugenio Montale. Still, this collection is on the whole surprisingly lackluster; the beloved postmodernist will ultimately be better remembered for such earlier, more spirited essay collections as The Uses of Literature. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/02/1999