Why Read the Classics?

Abdelfattah Kilito in The Baffler:

WHAT IS THE POINT of reading the ancients? They are not of our world. They are peacefully asleep and do not want us to wake them. Let the dead bury their dead. We may hesitate a moment in our judgement and suppose that there are, perhaps, benefits and advantages to be gained from their company. Yet we immediately turn our faces away from them, admitting: we ought to read them, but we don’t. The matter remains a mysterious aspiration.

The strange thing is that despite not reading them, we behave as though we have read them and lay claim to the knowledge of their production. Personally, I have not read the Iliad, but I know the gist of it—and by the way, who reads Don Quixote? Most know about it only through the drawings of Gustave Doré or by way of a paragraph in the pages of a school textbook. This applies just as well to the majority of works designated as “classic.” What does this designation mean? Italo Calvino presented fourteen definitions of it, opening with the statement that the classic book is one which the reader says they re-read and never says they are currently reading.

It is commonly understood that every literature has a particular temporal sequence and a unique nomenclature for its stages. As a simple example, the French researcher in the literature of the Middle Ages is designated a “médiéviste.” (Paul Zumthor[1] is among the distinguished researchers in this field). Is it possible to apply this description to a researcher interested in Arabic texts in their particular era, regardless of whether the researcher is Arab or non-Arab? This seems to me quite farfetched, since the term “Middle Ages” does not align with Arab history, nor does it agree with what we know of the development of Arabic literature. Every literature has its own periodization, hierarchy, classic texts, and even classical age. According to the French, as it is known, the classical age par excellence is the seventeenth century.

More here.