Reading for UConn Reads

By Anne D'Alleva

Explore the world of classic fiction and participate in the selection process for UConn Reads 2012-13 with Anne D'Alleva, Associate Professor of Art History and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Chair of the UConn Reads Steering Committee.

What Is a Classic?

Welcome to Reading for UConn Reads! As chair of the steering committee, I have the pleasure of guiding the book selection for 2012-13, and this blog is one way of involving the larger UConn community in that process.

The committee has decided to concentrate on classic fiction this year, to move us in a different direction from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), the provocative and compelling focus of our first UConn Reads.

So what is a classic?

There are almost as many definitions as there are books to be considered for the honor. I’m tempted to echo Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who ruled on a similarly  knotty problem of definition by simply declaring “I know it when I see it.”

Instead I’ll turn to the Italian writer Italo Calvino, who proposes no fewer than fourteen definitions of the term in his essay “Why Read the Classics?” (The New York Review of Books 33: 15, October 9, 1986, trans. Patrick Creagh). I was particularly struck by two of them:

  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
  • The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through…

In the end, Calvino argues against a canonical list of prescribed books in favor of readers defining the classics for themselves. He suggests that such imagined libraries might be composed of “half of books we have read and that have really counted for us, and half of books we propose to read and presume will come to count—leaving a section of empty shelves for surprises and occasional discoveries.”

What classics are on your shelves?

Please feel free to share your thoughts here, and to make official book nominations using the form at uconnreads.uconn.edu.