When you sit down to read Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, you quickly discover that this book is about, well, you sitting down to read If on a winter's night a traveler. Written in the second person, the book addresses "you, the Reader" as its main character, just like in those old Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Back when the book was published in 1979, this was a highly experimental style of narration. And you know what? It kind of blows our minds even today.
Once you've figured out that you're going to be the main character, things get crazy. Due to a printer's error, the story gets majorly interrupted. And then, to make up for this inconvenience, the book just goes ahead and does this to you ten more times, leading you through a plot that involves corrupt dictators, a torturous romance, and a worldwide book conspiracy.
In order to tie this all together, the book is divided into twenty-two parts; every odd-numbered section describes your worldwide quest to finish the many books you've started reading, and every even-numbered section is the first chapter of one of these fictional books. Confused yet? Good.
The outlandish structure of this book was no doubt inspired by Italo Calvino's involvement with the Oulipo group, a club of sorts that was founded in 1960s France to bring together writers and mathematicians who wanted to discuss new ways of structuring art. That's right. Despite how much people try to peg you as a right- or left-brain thinker, art and math were once close allies.
Oh, and before we forget, If on a winter's night a traveler was originally written in Italian (Se una note d'inverno un viaggiatore). But English-speaking audiences just can't get enough of it. And once you come to terms with being the main character and learn to deal with Calvino's philosophical rants, you'll be on board, too.
Have you ever thought about writing a killer opening to a novel, only to realize that you don't have the stamina or interest to figure out how the rest of the story should go? Well Italo Calvino has the perfect alternative for you: write a novel made entirely out of the first chapters of novels. What better way to avoid the boredom that can overtake you once the initial enthusiasm for a story has worn off?
At its core, If on a winter's night a traveler is a book about the pleasure of reading. By working your way through it, you can become much more connected to that part of you that truly loves to follow a story. On another level, the text also contains countless shining examples of how to write an interesting story yourself.
Coming into this novel, you might think that books are just straightforward stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Well, Calvino has something to say about that. If on a winter's night a traveler is nothing if not weird, and it's weird for a good reason. See, it makes an incredible use of literary experimentation. But where most experimentation ends up making a book difficult and annoying to read, Calvino's tactics can make you all the more obsessed with soldiering on.