For a variety of reasons, I’ve been doing quite a bit of re-reading lately. And then, with great delight and while engaging in some non-re-reading, I came across this wonderful little opening to Italo Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics? (a book which I will probably re-read at some stage):
1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’
At least this is the case with those people whom one presumes are ‘well read‘; it does not apply to the young, since they are at an age when their contact with the world, and with the classics which are part of that world, is important precisely because it is their first such contact.
The iterative prefix ‘re-’ in front of the verb ‘read’ can represent a small act of hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, all one need do is to point out that however wide-ranging any person’s formative reading may be, there will always be an enormous number of fundamental works that one has not read.
Put up your hand anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and Thucydides. And what about Saint-Simon? and Cardinal Retz? Even the great cycles of nineteenth-century novels are more often mentioned than read. In France they start to read Balzac at school, and judging by the number of editions in circulation people apparently continue to read him long after the end of their schooldays. But if there were an official survey on Balzac’s popularity in Italy, I am afraid he would figure very low down the list. Fans of Dickens in Italy are a small elite who whenever they meet start to reminisce about characters and episodes as though talking of people they actually knew. When Michel Butor was teaching in the United States a number of yean ago, he became so tired of people asking him about Émile Zola, whom he had never read, that he made up his mind to read the whole cycle of Rougon-Macquart novels. He discovered that it was entirely different from how he had imagined it: it turned out to be a fabulous, mythological genealogy and cosmogony, which he then described in a brilliant article.
What this shows is that reading a great work for the first time when one is fully adult is an extraordinary pleasure, one which is very different (though it is impossible to say whether more or less pleasurable) from reading it in one’s youth. Youth endows every reading, as it does every experience, with a unique flavour and significance, whereas at a mature age one appreciates (or should appreciate) many more details, levels and meanings.