You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV…” Or, if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
I had recently started reading the book and had no idea what to expect. I simply loved loved the simplicity of his prose and was excited to read more.
As it turns out, the story follows two readers—"you" and your crush, a woman named Ludmilla—who are trying to read a novel together, but the novel was faultily published and is incomplete. Every time you get to an exciting part in the book, the book cuts off: The rest is blank!
Each chapter is broken into two sections. In the first part, you and Ludmilla are on a wild goose chase trying to locate (or sometimes steal) the next chapter of the book. In the second, you read the chapter you've just found, only to discover that it is completely different from the story you were just reading.
It's so frustrating!
I won't give away the rest of the story—this is not a book review—but I did want to highlight the book's two main themes:
First, the tension between the reader’s expectations and the writer’s aspirations.
The book explores the questions: " Why do you read?" "Why should you read?" And "What was the author hoping you'd get from your reading?" Ludmilla, you learn, is only focused on the pleasure of reading and doesn't want to know how a book is written or published. (At one point she sends you to the publishing house to figure things out on your own.) Her sister Lotaria, on the other hand, cares only about the social prestige surrounding book writing and publication. She goes so far as to put books through a computer algorithm rather than attempt to read them herself. Meanwhile, Silas Flannery (the author of the book whom you and Ludmilla meet on one of your adventures) worries incessantly about how his readers view his book, while you just want to finish the darn thing!
Second, the book highlights the intimate relationship between reading and living.
As you read, you realize the book resembles life in many ways, particularly in its unpredictability. The various chapters zigzag across continents and cultures, professions and plotlines. In addition, Calvino cleverly highlights the similarities between the way we read a story and the way we read life. You and Ludmilla "read and review" each other throughout the book, and though you both remember your meeting, if asked, neither of you could pinpoint the beginning nor predict the ending of your story. After all, Calvino points out, reading "is [often] not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turn the page, finds its place, gets lost" (156).
This metaphor is even more perfectly described in the passage below:
But how to establish the exact moment in which a story begins? Everything has already begun before, the first line of the first page of every novel refers to something that has already happened outside the book. Or else the real story is the one that begins tens or a hundred pages further on, and everything that precedes it is only a prologue. The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one piece of living that has a meaning separate from the rest—for example, the meeting of two people, which will become decisive for both—must bear in mind that each of the two brings with himself a texture of events, environments, other people, and that from that meeting, in turn, other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story.
This almost sounds like relationship advice, Signore Calvino. Are you sure you weren't also a therapist in your lifetime? (Calvino died in Siena in 1985 at the age of 61.)
This passage stood out to me because of recent events in my life and was a reminder of many other things—in particular, the idea that people are complex. We are not islands but continents in and of ourselves, made up of a million small parts, and intricately connected with each other. The way I read you today may actually have nothing to do with you, but rather point to something going on inside of me. And the way you read me tomorrow may be related to how well you sleep tonight or how you perceive I am reading you in that moment. Our collective readings might also have to do with a triggered memory from our separate childhoods, or the fact that my car broke down this morning, or even the compliment you received from a stranger just moments ago.
And all of it reminds me of a few important quotes I've heard over the years:
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. — Brad Meltzer
We write our own destiny; we become what we do. — Chiang Kai-shek
I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul. — William Ernest Henley
"Hope is never mere, even when it is meager. When all other senses sleep, the eye of hope is the first to awaken, last to shut." — Gil-galad
(In case were wondering, this is my favorite quote from the Rings of Power.) <3
No matter what you're facing, you have the power to write your own story.
Never give up—on yourself or others.