Thursday, 23 August 2001

Why read the classics? and a Granta

Listening to:

Bach, Art of the fugue.

Just read:

Italo Calvino, Why read the classics?

This was a birthday present two years ago, and the fact that I’ve only just finished it now is testimony to the length of my back-log list. I’ve been very good since though, and seriously curtailed my book buying. Next year I expect to be reading books that are less than a year old, and getting very close to finished.

Anyway, Why read the classics? is a collection of essays about classic literature. Each essay deals with a particular author, and usually a particular work by that author. The essays are ordered by the dates of the author, so the first four are classical authors (Homer, Xenophon, Ovid and Pliny), and the last few are 20th century (Conrad and Hemingway, for example). The essays weren’t written in this order, but it seems a sensible arrangement. Italo Calvino is (was) Italian, so there are a number of Italian authors discussed, but there are also authors in there who wrote in French, English, Spanish and Russian.

Some of the essays were written for popular newspapers and/or magazines, others were written to be prefaces to the work discussed, and others were written for academic consumption. This means that the level of the essays varies quite a bit. Some are really quite difficult to follow. Others are very good. Even when about things I haven’t read and authors I’ve never even heard of, the good essays make me think, “Hmm, I really think I should try and get around to reading that...” (Then I remember my list.)

Granta 67: Women and children first.

This was an excellent Granta, with lots of neat stuff in it. The title essay is about the Titanic, and was prompted by the film of the same name. The author investigates the story of the band playing a hymn as the ship went down. Other non-fiction included an account of being trapped with some UN soldiers in a Rwandan refugee camp, and an essay about the Antarctic and Scott’s expedition there.

There was also fiction. There was an amusing excerpt from Zadie Smith’s White teeth (which appears on my list, making this an aperitif for a main meal that I know I will be able to enjoy), and an elegant extract from a recent novel by Edmund White.

To read next:

Todd McEwen, Arithmetic.


I’m now installed in my office in the new Computer Lab building. Moving explains the delay in web-log entries.