If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino
Reading and Books
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
It's time to get meta.
If on a winter's night a traveler is basically one big allegory for the process of reading and the pleasure you can get out of it. So yeah, we hope you liked it.
By following different characters—who are all obsessed with reading in one way or another—we get all sorts of perspectives on how a book can be read or a story be told. Let's take a look:
• You (the character): you, the Reader have a typical reader's desire "for books to be read from beginning to end" (21.13). Basically, you're boring. Sorry.
• Uzzi-Tuzii and Lotaria: These two are too caught up in personal agendas to read books with an open mind. Translation: they're academics.
• Silas Flannery and Mr. Cavedagna: These aging men can't enjoy books because books are part of their working lives. That means that reading is connected to a sense of what they have to do instead of what they want to do, so it ruins it for them. (Shmoop would like to politely object, Mr. Calvino.)
• Ermes Marana: This guy devotes himself to confusing people as much as possible, often for the sake of being a cynical jerk.
• Ludmilla: Your leading lady seems to represent Calvino's ideal reader, who believes that "'Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be'" (7.20). She doesn't set out to prove anything when she reads a book, but just revels in the potential of reading as if it were a tub of double chocolate ice cream. Mmm.
Bottom line: be Ludmilla. And hey, if you, the Reader, can learn how to find pleasure in a book's potential, then the ten interrupted novels of If on a winter's night a traveler are the right stories for you—after all, potential is all they are.
Calvino never stops reminding us that books are objects. Yep, objects. The tangible kind that you hold in your hand. Even though you (as the Reader) might lose sight of it when you're absorbed in a story, Calvino brings you back to reality—whether it's through the binding errors that create mayhem in your reading or through Irnerio's book sculptures.
Early on in If on a winter's night a traveler, Calvino introduces you to this concept by having you take hold of your book and enjoying how brand-new it is:
an object fresh from the factory, the youthful bloom of new books, which lasts until the dust jacket begins to yellow, until a veil of smog settles on the top edge, until the binding becomes dog-eared, in the rapid autumn of libraries (1.14)
The material presence of books lurks beneath the meanings of words. Remember that "silence" or "void" that Uzzi-Tuzii says exists behind language? Well, it makes a little more sense when you think about books as just pieces of paper all put together. This whole idea is brought to life through Irnerio's hobby of using books to make "artworks: statues, pictures, whatever you want to call them […] fix[ing] the books with mastic, and they stay as they were. Shut, or open, or else I give them forms, I carve them, I make holes in them" (13.36).
Even as you, the Reader, become more and more obsessed with finding out how a story ends, Calvino is always there to remind you that your book is just a block of paper. Is he just party popping us? Not exactly. This message seems to blend into his more general point that, at the end of the day, you should always be looking for new ways to take pleasure in a book.
P.S. What would Calvino think of our era of e-books? What do you think about it?
In the late 1970s, the public was just becoming aware of the incredible power that computers would one day have. All the hub-bub created some paranoia about computers becoming so smart that they could take over the world. The Terminator, anyone?
At this same time, Calvino was involved with the Oulipo group, which gathered mathematicians and writers together to discuss how mathematical principles could be used to write fiction.
Where are we going with all this? Well, on several occasions, If on a winter's night a traveler mentions machines that can either produce or analyze the contents of books, which seems to be Calvino's way of exploring just how much (or how little) computers can tell us about literature. Is it possible, for example, for a machine to recognize a particular author's style so well that it could produce an entirely new work by this same author? Even today, that seems far-fetched, but not that far-fetched.
Calvino, though, is far less critical of this possibility than he is of a machine that might read books. He associates this second type of machine with the annoying student Lotaria, who asks, "'What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences, certain insistences of forms and meanings?'" (15.94). It might be a rhetorical questions, but Calvino would no doubt want us to answer: "A whole lot more, Lotaria. A whole lot."