If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino
If on a winter's night a traveler Literature and Language Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (Chapter.Paragraph)
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. (2.1)
Right away, Calvino tries to confuse the boundaries between the world inside the book and your real life. In this sense, the words you're reading on the page start to get blocked by the steam rising from the same train they're describing. Trippy, right? The relationship between words and the supposedly "real" things words refer to will continue to catch you throughout the novel.
[A]ll of this is a setting you know by heart, with the odor of train that lingers after all the trains have left, the special odor of stations after the last train has left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of indicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog. (2.3)
Okay, so can language communicate some sort of physical "reality" to us? You'd have to be a semiotics genius to have a super-theoretical conversation about it, but let's at least take a look at what Calvino thinks. In this passage, the speaker suggests that words might actually destroy the things they're talking about more than describe them. How could words possibly do this? Well, because in a book, the words are all you've got. If you had the real thing in front of you, you wouldn't have your nose buried in a book. The book assumes that the things it describes are absent while you're reading. You convinced?
"It's not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear" (5.60)
Irnerio says that the secret to teaching oneself how not to read is to stare at words until all you see is black scribbles on a white background. This reminds your brain that there is nothing naturally meaningful about the words you read. For all your eyes care, what you're reading could look like (*&%^&$&%$(&^(%&. It's only after your brain adds its own interpretation that words mean something. This quote develops the idea that some void-like silence lurks beneath all words. It's a void that you can almost see if you stare hard enough... keep staringstaringstaringstaring… anything yet?