If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino
You, The Reader
Straight European Male
Ready for weird? From its opening line, Calvino establishes that you, the Reader, are the story's main character. So take a deep breath, and get ready for some action.
Beware, though, because he isn't referring to you, the individual person reading this sentence. The "you" to whom this book refers to is a middle-aged, single man who enjoys the occasional read and is attracted to pretty women. Okay, so this might be you, but we're guessing not.
Why does Calvino choose such a specific demographic for his "you"? Well, he might be commenting or even criticizing the idea that when authors sit down to write works of "literature," they often assume their readers will be heterosexual men of white European descent. After all, think about the way Calvino constantly treats women in this book as sex objects. He's either catering to the appetites of this "normal" reader or heavily criticizing them, right?
For now, let's just hope he's criticizing.
Playin' it Safe
Early in the action, the book gives you some important information about yourself:
It's not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You're the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. (1.6)
Doesn't sound very much like you, Shmooper, but it does sound like the middle-aged guy who the "you" is supposed to be. See, as this middle-aged man, you aren't so young anymore. And since you harbor a deep fear of being disappointed in your life, "You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst" (1.6). Not exactly a motivational speech, but in this passage, Calvino is able to characterize you as an "average" male reader with a fairly conservative or safe approach to life,.
The only risk you'll allow yourself? To get invested in books, where "the risk of disappointment isn't serious" (1.6). Or is it?
Okay, so you, the reader, bring totally normal expectations to the books you read. Why would Calvino characterize you like this? Could it be because he has to? See, if Calvino is going to start messing around with the normal forms of storytelling—which, as we know, he totally is—he needs to make sure that his audience comes to his book with normal expectations. That can promptly be shattered.
In other words, Calvino's making you into a straw man just so he can gradually tear you down. He tells you that what you want "is the opening of an abstract and absolute space and time in which you could move, following an exact, taut trajectory" (3.6). Calvino gives you normal expectations for a plot with an "exact trajectory" because he wants to draw attention to the limits of readers who look for a clear beginning, middle, and end in a story.
If on a winter's night a traveler might just be trying to educate you on how to become more open-minded toward the pleasures of reading.You, the Reader's Timeline