Italo Calvino — If on a winter’s night a traveler

Picking up If on a winter’s night a traveler, you can immediately tell that Calvino is ready to lead you on a merry ride. He addresses the reader directly, teasing them about their reactions to reading the book–but this isn’t what the author’s voice sounds like at all, even though he’s known for changing it book to book! It’s a strange and challenging book but recognizably Calvino, simply because you can just feel the love of books radiating from it. For example, this passage, I loved:

Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you, But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books that Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of othe fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexpicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified…

Anyone who’s ever spent time in a bookstore knows that Calvino got it right, that’s exactly the sort of books lurking to find you in a bookstore. The “plot” follows two readers as they try to actually finish the titular story, which ends up being several other stories, all leading to a stunning conclusion. It’s a very clever book but somehow manages to not be annoying. I loved it.

This isn’t going to be a review however so much as it will just be a few random thoughts I had while reading it. I reacted very strongly to the paragraph that I quoted above and so did a number of people who I know love books. Recently I lent my boyfriend (who has been asking me for book recommendations but never enjoys what I recommend him) Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, whose opening paragraphs is also one of my favorites of all time, a sweeping quote about the power that a book can have on one person. My boyfriend, however, thought it was ridiculous. “Man, all I got out of it was that this guy REALLY LOVES this book and won’t shut up about it.” He showed it his coworkers, who are all science types, and they all had similar reactions. So when he asked me what I was reading while I was finishing up If on a winter’s night a traveler I instantly got defensive and hid it from him. There are certain books, it seems, that you really have to LOVE BOOKS in order to enjoy. And that makes me kind of sad–that so many people don’t feel that way.

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1 Comment

Filed under Books, Review, Thoughts

One response to “Italo Calvino — If on a winter’s night a traveler

  1. A while ago I got off work early and happened to be near a nice used books store and I fell into a kind of fugue state where for some reason I decided I MUST spend $50 on books, and grabbed whatever titles I somehow remembered I’d decided to read one day. One was if on a winter’s night and the other was the fall. I was surprised by their similarities in style, though I think the “you” in the fall is a more specific person who can not be me (since I’m sadly never going to hang out in a Danish tavern), while the “you” in if on a winter’s night seems more intended to really the reader, a “universal you.”
    I wonder if you know of any other books like this that pull that off, not just told as if someone is telling you a story, like in Heart of darkness.

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