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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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Italo Calvino — The Baron in the Trees

The first book by Calvino I ever read; I don’t remember how old I was when I first picked it up but I do remember being slightly too young to probably fully appreciate it. But I think that says a lot about the book, that I could appreciate it so young and then still find new and wonderful things in it probably a decade and a half later. This is a book I will probably read to my children when they are too young to appreciate fully.

The Baron in the Trees is a fable, the story of a young nobleman, Cosimo, in a small Italian village estate in the 1700s, who after a fight with his family regarding a dish of snails for dinner (really) decides that he’s going to take to the trees and never set foot on the earth again. It’s not spoiling anything to say that he never does, even in death: that last scene is typically magical and fantastic. The book, narrated by Cosimo’s younger brother, spans the Baron’s entire life, and touches upon the upheavals in the world around them as well: financial difficulties for peasants, piracy, brigands, and eventually the French revolution.

This is also a book about determination and never giving in; being honest to oneself; the destructive power of love. It is also, as I have found with Calvino, a book about stories, and books, and the value of them. Cosimo tells tall tales to the peasants for most of his life in the trees, and the section of the book where he guides a brigand’s reading habits is one of the most touching things in the story. (I actually cried at what happens to his edition of Clarissa and considering I am NOT a fan of Richardson, I think that says something for Calvino!)

The Baron in the Trees is full of improbable adventure, one of the strangest and most wistful love stories I’ve ever read, and interesting thoughts on books and the value of a good story. It’s written in language that a ten year old can understand, but a twenty-five year old will find beautifully simple. That alone says a lot about what a fine book it is.

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Italo Calvino — Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities is an incredibly charming book, written in simple, dream-like language about a multitude of cities. Marco Polo, explorer and adventurer, converses with the emperor Kublai Khan, telling him stories of fantastical cities that may or may not exist, cities that in the end may just be different versions of each other. The book is slim, written in a series of page-long vignettes, little prose poems about the different cities, magical places that nevertheless feel grounded in the real world. Maybe… just maybe… they could exist, somewhere. After all–how is a city constructed entirely in between two high peaks, floating on a series of ropes, pulleys, and nets any less amazing and fantastic than, say, New York? This is a book that I read continually when I am feeling a bit down–there’s nothing like it for re-instilling that childish sense of wonder.

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