Sunday, May 17, 2009

missed it the first time: Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler

An occasional series to review books that are several years old and Deckfight has never read before

To describe Italo Calvino’s classic If on a winter’s night a traveler as difficult is the same as saying that dog barks or babies cry. It's that obvious and sometimes the difficulty of it is that annoying. To approach the book without that mindset will cause all to fail. It demands patience, it demands long attention. In some ways it may be the best literary theory book ever written (not the ‘theory’ word), because of his knack for illustrating tough concepts into imaginable situations. That he does all of this with the second-person (choose-your-own-adventure style) is both confounding and genius. He challenges the notion of reading, the concept of books, and the idea of authors and readers at every turn while somehow also concluding it.
The conceit is that Calvino writes ten different beginnings to story, each with a portion of a title that then makes a longer sentence. The plot is that a character named “you,” indicated as the reader is on a quest to find and connect these stories together, each time running into a new story and more difficulty. Along the way, you meet several different readers and people who each approach books and the concept of books differently. There is the person who derives meaning from books by the frequency of how many times a certain word is used. There is the sculptor who uses books as his material. There are the scholars who argue constantly over proper translations. Like the best soapbox prophet, he is still somewhat of a pariah. Unfortunately all of his ideas presented here still seem new and fresh even though it’s thirty years old. The literary world still hasn’t caught up with him. Calvino manipulates, warns and challenges us without few ever fully engaging him. He is either one of the best ever or the craziest ever. Or both.

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