If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino
We can't even tell you how much pleasure it gave us to write that heading. Because let's be honest: academics can be really, really annoying. And Lotaria is one of them.
Lotaria is Ludmilla's socially aggressive sister, and she's overbearing and obnoxious in almost everything she does. This is the kind of woman who's just totally exhausting: as our narrator tells us, "If you start arguing, she'll never let you go" (5.17). In fact, it's difficult to read about her without feeling that Calvino is taking a shot at the politically motivated female students who had become a significant part of universities when this book was first published in 1979.
Unlike Ludmilla, Lotaria doesn't read to enjoy, just to analyze books for their general theme-based content. When you try to explain a book to her, for example, you quickly learn that "Lotaria wants to know the author's position with regard to Trends of Contemporary Thought and Problems That Demand a Solution" (5.14). Ugh. Don't you just hate that? And this critical portrait of Lotaria's reading reaches its most ridiculous when Lotaria starts feeding books into a machine that can analyze them "according to all Codes, Conscious and Unconscious, and in which all Taboos are eliminated, the ones imposed by the dominant Sex, Class, and Culture" (5.17). Talk about taking the pleasure out of reading.
Calvino seems to be criticizing not just academics with hoity-toity opinions, but also anyone who comes to a book with pre-conceived notions of what they should find inside. That's right. Lotaria's greatest academic sin is that she brings an agenda to her reading, just using books to confirm beliefs that she already had before she started reading. Her sister Ludmilla reads books with an open mind, receptive to sudden surprises. Calvino seems to value Ludmilla's style of reading, but Lotaria finds it "escapist and regressive" (15.87)—in other words, socially irresponsible.
A little hypocritical, right? Calvino would argue that Lotaria's narrow agenda actually makes her more of a passive reader than Ludmilla, who is willing to engage a book on any terms. Zing.
P.S. Doesn't academia sometimes teach us to read in the Lotaria way, though? Absolutely. Many classes don't ask you to explain why a book is enjoyable, but only to identify the book's "problems" and debate them. Calvino clearly isn't a fan of this style of teaching and learning.