The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’
Italo Calvino’s first definition of a classic has an amusingly cynical ring to it. Though he follows it with thirteen more, we can probably all relate to the feeling that we’re not allowed to ever “read” a classic, only to “reread” it. The heft of works like Hamlet and The Odyssey often makes people feel that they can’t admit they’re coming to it for the first time. After all, if these are the essential books, the kind which others say they couldn’t imagine living without, how thin and trivial would our life seem if we admitted they hadn’t been bound up with these revered volumes?
I always think that one of the pleasures of an English degree is the right to admit that this is all new, and to share your first experience of supposedly essential books with others in the same situation. There’s an enormous temptation to be world-weary as an undergraduate – and frankly who’d blame them, given the world involved and what other people seem to have been doing with it – but there’s also a lot of fun to be had from a shared “WHAT IS THIS, I CANNOT EVEN…” when faced with Lewis’ The Monk, or the sci-fi demons in Paradise Lost.
In another sense, it is impossible to ever read a classic for the first time. Coming to Dickens, Shakespeare, Milton or the Bible, we are likely to blunder into passages which feel oddly familiar. We hear echoes of our past reading, sense plots whose shape we already know, surprise ourselves by predicting what someone will say next. The way the “classics” (however we define them) have shaped our cultural world means that encountering them always involves a peculiar blend of familiarity and strangeness. Novels, advertising slogans and jokes which we already knew suddenly reveal hidden links as we stumble across the story which provoked them. Plunging deeper into the classics we find ourselves in a dreamworld where our lifelong friends turn up in alien masks, speaking curious languages which we nonetheless understand. And just like in our dreams, we can tell who’s in love with each other, or that we should be afraid of someone, or where to put our hand to find the door, but we don’t know why. We don’t know why we’re crying at the music.
This familiarity can be as much a shock as a delight, of course. We may be appalled at finding ourselves part of a literary and cultural world partly woven out of books we despise. Recognising quotations or narrative shapes we’re used to, but in works built on violence and hatred may worry us, as we discover our favourite memories are implicated in their crimes. The classics can – and should – provoke us into rereading our own lives and habits of thought, in revulsion as well as in familiarity. Working through the “great books” which shaped our shared culture can be a process of self-examination. If done rigorously, it involves admitting it is not enough to sit in judgement and then dismiss them as unsuitable for the modern world, without having considered how much of what we thought were our lives and our selves was built using the books we want to disavow. Getting to know the classics can be painful and threatening, as well as pleasurable, perhaps because we can’t ever really come to them for the first time. They were always waiting for us. Waiting with us. Waiting in us.