If you are a regular reader of book blogs like this one, or if you belong to a book club, you have probably experienced the joy of communing with other readers. It’s such a pleasure to find other people who love books the way you do, who take pleasure in the feel of the book itself, who can’t wait to get back to a fascinating plot, who fall in love with a well-drawn character, who interrupt people to read exquisite prose aloud, who would at times rather skip a real-life party in order to read about one. And that’s the pure, gorgeous pleasure of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler: he is a reader (as well as a writer), and he knows what makes you tick.
The book is designed to frustrate every expectation you have of a novel. The main character (who is never named, except as “the Reader”) begins a fascinating novel, only to discover after the first chapter (which we also get to read) that his copy has been defaced. When he exchanges it and tries again, he finds that he’s been given a completely different novel. We read the first chapter of that novel, and are equally riveted, but that novel has been misprinted. Upon trying to find another copy of the second novel (or the first novel), he’s given yet a third novel, translated from the ancient Cimmerian, but this turns out to be an incomplete forgery…
Along the way, the Reader meets the Other Reader, a young woman who loves reading for reading’s sake, with no interest in politics or authorial intent; learns more than he wants to about counterfeit novels, plagiarism, and censorship; and finds the Great Library at the end of his travels. Despite what might have seemed like an irritating gimmick — the constant beginnings of novels you can’t finish — Calvino’s novel is the farthest thing in the world from annoying. On the contrary: it’s witty, touching, thoughtful, and best of all, genuinely interesting. Each chapter from each unfinished novel — and they are all completely different from each other — drew me in and made me want to finish the novel, exactly like the Reader, even when I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it. What a wonderful writer it takes to pull off something like that.
Let me give you a taste of his writing from the beginning of the novel. This was one of the many passages that told me he knew what it meant to be a real reader:
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. 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 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 the 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.
This goes on for paragraphs and it’s endlessly delightful. And one more quotation, this one from the end, because I can’t resist and because it’s as important today as when it was written, and always will be:
‘In reading, something happens over which I have no power.’ I could have told him that this is the limit that even the most omnipotent police force cannot breach. We can prevent reading: but in the decree that forbids reading there will be still read someting of the truth that we would wish never to be read.