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Grammar Is Sexy

Deliberate Organization: What We Can Learn from the Structure of Italo Calvino’s “Why Read the Classics”

At one point or another, I’m sure all of us have read (and probably written) a list post of some kind.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. People love reading list posts. Just look at BuzzFeed.

You might be surprised to learn, however, that the list as a way of organizing writing goes back to before BuzzFeed and even the internet as we know it.

Reading the title essay of Italo Calvino’s collection Why Read the Classics?, I discovered this same organizational structure at work. Calvino organizes his seven-page essay using the now ubiquitous form, employing each of the fourteen list items to gradually refine and iterate his definition of a “classic.”

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino

This essay is a superb piece of writing in its own right, filled with wisdom and encouragement for the overambitious reader. More relevantly, however, it’s also a lesson in thoughtful, controlled organization, showing that the list form can be a powerful rhetorical tool if employed correctly.

Before you read any further, at least peruse the original essay as published in The New York Review of Books (although I encourage you to read it in its entirety).

Did you read it? You better have, or what comes next won’t be very valuable.

In the spirit of the list theme, I’ve divided what we can learn from the essay’s form into three points:

1. The List Adds Order

This is obvious, of course, but it’s the way Calvino does it that makes it so powerful. Calvino isn’t giving an arbitrary list of the best cat gifs; he’s deliberately unfolding a carefully controlled argument (more on that in point three).

2. The List Makes the Argument Easier to Digest

By scholarly standards, this isn’t a ridiculously long essay (around 2,600 words), but by dividing it into fourteen points, Calvino is making his argument much easier to take in and understand. Of course, it’s a simplification to say that each of the fourteen points is an organizational item in the sense that we often think. The points are not headings as such, but rather the main emphases of Calvino’s argument. Look for example at the way Calvino comes to item number 4:

3) The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.

There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth. Even if the books have remained the same (though they do change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing.

Hence, whether we use the verb “read” or the verb “reread” is of little importance. Indeed, we may say:

4) Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

Item 4 functions as the conclusion that follows from his musings in item 3. It is a place for the eye to rest and consider his point before moving on to point 5.

Calvino also deliberately varies the length of the list items. Item 5, for instance, is one short sentence, whereas item 8 is several lengthy ones.

The amount of writing between each item also varies, with Calvino sometimes going on for several paragraphs before coming to a new point (between items 7 and 8, for instance). In this way, the essay has an exploratory quality to it, almost as if Calvino is thinking out loud, although, in fact, the argument is well-controlled and organized.

3. The List Allows the Argument to Unfold Gradually

Speaking of the essay’s argument, the list form is integral to how Calvino unfolds his thesis about why anyone should read the classics. If you removed the numbered list items, you would still have an excellent essay, but the experience of reading it would change. Sure, Calvino could have just removed the numbers and left the short sentences that comprise some of the numbered points, and while the shortness of the sentences would have still drawn attention to them, the numbers give the essay an almost scientific or mathematical quality, as if Calvino is positing a hypothesis about the reason behind reading the classics.

Each point to the next, then, is an accumulation of arguments in favor of reading the classics, even though Calvino presents each point as merely a definition. How many list posts that you’ve read function this way, using the list items to actually build and advance an argument? It’s a strategy worth trying. Your readers have the familiar comfort of the list to entice them and carry them through their reading, but you, intelligent writer that you are, add some extra rhetorical touches to help your readers take away more than a sense of affirmation and satisfaction.

At least that’s the dream. None of will ever be Calvino; few of us will come close.

In the spirit of Calvino, go ahead and write a list post, but do so with purpose.

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