The Classics

Updated July 18, 2021

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” – Italo Calvino (The Literature Machine, 1986)

“A classic is a classic…because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” – Ezra Pound (The ABC of Reading, 1934)

“A classic is something everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” – Mark Twain

“A book must of necessity be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, must be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil! – William Gladstone

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity, and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon, and by moonlight.” – Robertson Davies (1913-1995)

“All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” – John Ruskin (Sesame and Lilies, 1865)

“Another odd thing about classics is that when their authors are writing them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” – Clifton Fadiman (Selected Writings, 1955)

“Choose an author as you would choose a friend.” – Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon (c. 1633-1685)

“In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short and both time and strength are limited.” – Arthur Schopenhauer (“On Reading and Books,” 1851)

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” – Mortimer Adler (cited in The Harper Book of Quotations)

“It is with books as with men: a very small number play a great part.” – Voltaire (1694-1778)

“The great books are those we want to spend our lives with because they never cease to reward our devotion.” – Michael Dirda (Book by Book: Notes on the Reading Life, 2006)

“I cannot understand the rage manifested by the greater part of the world for reading new books….if I have not read a book before, it is, to all intents and purposes, new to me, whether it was printed yesterday or three hundred years ago.” – William Hazlitt (“On Reading New Books”)

“Life being very short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books.” – John Ruskin

“Literature is news that stays news.” – Ezra Pound (The ABC of Reading)

“Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death hath no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever.” – J. Schwartz

“Nearly all the books I prize, and absolutely all that have been of any use to me, are books that don’t make easy reading.” – Paul Valery

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” – Henry David Thoreau (A Week in the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849)

“Reading books is good, re-reading good books is better.” – Lawrence Clark Powell (quoted in Books Are Basic)

“Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” – W.H. Auden (The Dyer’s Hand, 1962)

“The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency – the belief that the here and now is all there is.” – Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind, 1987)

“The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.” – Samuel Butler

“The only test of a work of literature is that it shall please other ages than its own.” – Gerald Brenan (Thoughts in a Dry Season, 1978)

“The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it. Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” —C.S. Lewis (An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)

“The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones.” — Joseph Joubert

“To destroy the Western tradition of independent thought it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a couple of generations.” – Robert M. Hutchins

“To read great books does not mean one becomes ‘bookish’; it means that something of the terrible insight of Dostoyevsky, of the richly-charged imagination of Shakespeare, of the luminous wisdom of Goethe, actually passes int the personality of the reader; so that in contact with the chaos of ordinary life certain free and flowing outlines emerge, like the forms of some classic picture, endowing both people and things with a grandeur beyond what is visible to the superficial glance.” – John Cowper Powys [quoted in The Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature by Anthony O’Hear, 2009)

“When you re-read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.” – Clifton Fadiman (Any Number Can Play, 1957)

Recent is not a synonym for relevant.” – Elizabeth Gumport, “Against Reviews,” n+1

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” –
Robertson Davies

“A sure sign of a good book is that you like it more the older you get.” – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

“The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.” – Samuel Butler

“The greatest books are those we want to spend our lives with because they never cease to reward our devotion.”  – Michael Dirda (A Reading Life)

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he `has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter?” –  C.S. Lewis, “Of Stories” (1947) in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, 1967; quoted by Mike Gilleland in his blog Laudator Temporis Acti and subsequently cited by Patrick Krup in his blog Anecdotal Evidence)

“When you read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in you than was there before.” – Clifton Fadiman

“A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.” – Schopenhauer

“A classic is a book that doesn’t have to be written again. – Carl Van Doren

“The study of the classics . . . teaches us to believe that there is something really great and excellent in the world, surviving all the shocks of accident and fluctuations of opinion, and raises us above that low and servile fear which bows only to present power and upstart authority . . . . We feel the presence of that power which gives immortality to human thoughts and actions, and catch the flame of enthusiasm from all nations and ages. ” – William Hazlitt

“We should recollect that he who writes for fools finds an enormous audience, and we should devote the ever scant leisure of our circumscribed existence to the master spirits of all ages and nations, those who tower over humanity, and whom the voice of Fame proclaims: only such writers cultivate and instruct us. Of bad books we can never read too little; of the good never too much.” – Charles Richardson (The Choice of Books, 1883)

“Even if we allow no time for frivolities and read only those works which ‘you really must read,’ it has now become impossible for the longest-lived, the most methodical and resolute mortal to get through the excellent literature which stares at him from the shelves with mute entreaty and reproach.” – “Too Many Books,” Selected Modern English Essays, 1927

“In . . . masterpieces of their genre . . ., the personality of the author, projecting itself through the human instances he selects to render, gives one a pleasure that, seizing upon one with the first words one reads, continues to the last page. In that pleasure one omits to notice either the writer’s methods or his social or political tendencies, and his books become, as it were, countrysides or manor houses rather than bound leaves of paper impressed with printed characters.” – Ford Madox Ford (The March of Literature)


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