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 Robinson Crusoe, 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.
From both the American and the Argentinian, Calvino learned to be concise, and his quick sketches of books like the "unqualified masterpiece" Our Mutual Friend provide a contact high--one wants to drop everything and head straight to a library, so infectious is his enthusiasm. "How many young people will be smitten" by Stendhal's recently, brilliantly retranslated Waterloo-era adventure The Charterhouse of Parma, he writes, "recognizing it as the novel they had always wanted to read... the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life." Like a great teacher, Italo Calvino distills a writer's essence in a vivid phrase: money, for instance, serves as "the motive force of Balzac's narrative, the true test of feeling in Dickens; but in Mark Twain money is a game of mirrors, causing vertigo over a void." --Tim Appelo [via]