“You have with you the book you were reading in the cafe, which you are eager to continue, so that you can then hand it on to her, to communicate again with her through the channel dug by others’ words, which, as they are uttered by an alien voice, by the voice of that silent nobody made of ink and typographical spacing, can become yours and hers, a language, a code between the two of you, a means to exchange signals and recognize each other.”
I could start this blog post with a cleverly meta reference to Italo Calvino’s book If on a winter’s night a traveler. Firstly, it’d have to start in the second person because that’s how about half of the book is told. It’s kind of a marvel that such a strange storytelling device works outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books. There’s a reason why most books are written in the first and third person, and that reason is because it’s super tough to write in the second without sounding weird all the time. But Calvino manages it because he’s amazing. Moving swiftly on, I’d then have to start the review of the book but it wouldn’t be the review, it’d be a description of you reading the review, and your thoughts about the review as you read it. And then it’d end abruptly and we’d go back to the second person portion of the show for a while while we introduce another Blog Reader of the opposite sex to move the plot forward. I’d go back to the review part again but this time it would be a review for something else entirely, maybe the new Iron Man movie or whatever. And you’d get invested in that review, hanging on my every word, hoping to find out just what I thought of Tony Stark’s latest adventure. And then it’d stop and we’d have a new mystery on our hands. Why am I only writing the beginning of the reviews, and who is this other Reader?
Luckily for you and me, I’m not doing that. Just that paragraph up there was hard enough to write, and I’m sure somebody else has already taken that tack when it comes to talking about this astounding novel. Instead, I’m just going to tell you why the book is amazing. And to go in a completely opposite direction I’m going to do it in a bulleted list format.
- As mentioned above, about half the book is written in the second person. It’s a way to make “you” a character in the story, which is really cool. It’s also a way to make you connect with the ideas Calvino presents throughout about what literature means to us, the readers. Who has the final say on what a book means. Is the author at all important? Would a computer generated novel that exactly mimics an author be an atrocity to art? Do references and stolen scenes detract or add to our appreciation of a work? How do we form our likes and our dislikes, and how do we pick which book to read next when there are innumerable options? All these questions and more are brought up throughout the novel and Calvino wisely answers few of them, preferring instead to let us come to our own conclusions. If every you’ve been captivated by a novel, this is one that you must read because it makes you question yourself and discovery why reading means so much to you.
- The other half of the book is ten opening chapters of ten wildly different fictional books. This was the perfect thing for me to read at the perfect time. I hadn’t read anything truly spectacular for a long time, at least the beginning of the year, and I had picked up the troubling habit of starting and stopping several books at a time. Nothing was grabbing my interest. Here comes Italo Calvino (an author I already knew I liked thanks to the Top-50-worthy Cosmicomics) with a book seemingly tailor made for my predicament. I couldn’t read past those tantalizing opening pages by design. And what opening pages they were! Almost every one was interesting in one way or another. The first, a spy caper gone provincial (?) was fascinating in Calvino’s ability to evoke a mood and sense of place. Other highlights include the paranoid musings of a professor who thinks any phone ringing is for him (he might be right) and a sad man who might be taking part in a jailbreak plot or might just be recording scientific observations. Each section has its own style and voice and genre, an idea which delighted me in Cloud Atlas (a book for which this is a clear predecessor and influence) and continued to do so here. It was the remedy for what ailed me and I loved it.
- The love story between the Reader and the Other Reader is a really nice throughline for a sometimes confusing plot. Always there’s “you” and her and “your” desire for her drives everything “you” do in the book. Even when things get crazy it’s always clear why this is happening. There’s a mystery (why can you only read the openings of books and why are the titles and covers all screwy?) which is fun but even that is a part of the love story because it’s what brings the two characters together.
- Italo Calvino is a hilarious guy. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments and the ever increasing strangeness of the plot is funny in its own way. But more than just being funny for funny’s sake, the humor is used to undercut some of the self-serious ideas Calvino ponders/causes us to ponder. The best example of this comes during the main plot portion of the book which, at this point, takes the form of a diary by a popular mystery writer. He has dreams of being literary and invents a literary writer who has dreams of being popular. He wonders what would happen if he wrote a literary book while the other writer wrote a populist book. Would people be able to tell the difference? Would the wrong person get credit for the wrong book? Would they end up writing the same book, word for word? Would it even matter? It’s a delightfully existentialist musing portion of the book which is unlike any other part of the book. But really, no part of the book is like any other part. That’s the genius.
Alright, four’s enough. In case you haven’t guessed it, I really love this book. It vaulted instantly into my top 5 of all time. I must read others by Calvino. He’s everything I want in a writer. Also, how is there not a movie version of this yet. And I’m not talking a straight adaptation with books taking the focus. It’s pretty easy to imagine a movie about movies like this is a book about books. Movie genres are easy to differentiate, maybe even more so than books. You probably couldn’t fit all ten openings into one movie but you could do 6 or so with the rest being the story of an avid movie watcher. Get on that, Hollywood.