In a piece for the New Yorker, John Updike described how Calvino "manages to charm and entertain the reader in the teeth of a scheme designed to frustrate all reasonable readerly expectations" (source). In other words, it's mostly Calvino's tone that allows him to get away with what he's doing in this book.
Our guys is conversational, intimate, and playful—but also deeply philosophical. In fact, there are certain passages in this book where you can actually see all four elements working at once. Take this mesmerizing opening passage, for example:
Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice— (1.1).
Quite frankly, Calvino really needs to be as charming as he can, because if he weren't, most readers would never let him get away with messing with their brains so much.
Calvino understands that if you want to change the way people think, you can't just get in their faces and shout like Lotaria. You need to give them something new to enjoy, and open them up to all the pleasure they could experience if they'd change their thinking. Right away, he makes you feel great about the fact that you've sat down to read, and then he throws in some humor to make you feel like his ally. During his time, Calvino knew that TV was going to make it hard for books to survive, and this no doubt motivated him to find new ways of making books fresh and enjoyable.
Make no mistake, our author is trying to challenge your assumptions as a reader; but his witty, charming tone shows that he's also willing to do what it takes to get you on board with his way of thinking.
If you thought Calvino was just being careless with all the fragmentation in plot and narration, you're just flat-out wrong. This guy—just like his trickster character, Ermes Marana—knew exactly what he was doing. Fragmentation is one of the faves of postmodernist authors, and Calvino falls squarely into this group.
Postmodern lit also seeks to explore how literature goes about representing stuff that just can't be represented—which might actually be everything in the real world. Calvino knows that readers expect a very clear and straightforward plot, but insists on giving us almost the opposite: a plot that constantly starts, then stops, then goes off in some other direction.
In this sense, the book is also an example of a genre known as metafiction, which refers to books that comment directly on the fact that they are books, or perhaps stories that contain other stories within them (Calvino's book does both).
Calvino is suggesting that we rethink the ways that stories are "supposed" to be told. After all, if we keep getting exactly what we expect when we read books, how are we going to keep an open mind to new possibilities? What this novel attacks above all else is complacency in reading—the desire to get exactly what you expect when you sit down to read.
It is only by blowing tradition apart (enter postmodernism) that we can find new sources of energy in storytelling, and Calvino wants to help you—as gently as he can—to do the uncomfortable work of changing the way you think about reading.
If you've read to the end, you'll know that If on a winter's night a traveler unfolds into a longer sentence made of other book titles. That's why it's in sentence case, without all the normal capitalized title letters.
What's the sentence? Here it is, in all its glory:
If on a winter's night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave—What story down there awaits its end? he asks, anxious to hear the story. (21.20)
It's about staring down into an empty grave and wondering about how death is the same thing as the end of a story. Deep.
If you think about it, the "If" in particular makes the entire title completely speculative—something that exists only in the realm of potential, which is where all literature comes from.
Got that? Good.
Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader. A great double bed receives your parallel readings.
Ludmilla closes her book, turns off her light, puts her head back against the pillow, and says, "Turn off your light, too. Aren't you tired of reading?"
And you say, "Just a moment, I've almost finished If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino." (22.1-22.3)
At the end of the text, you (the character) find yourself married to Ludmilla and lying next to her in bed. It's a scene that you've fantasized about earlier in the book, but now it seems to have come true. Congratulations!
Throughout the book, the narrator has referred to Ludmilla as the "Other Reader," but in this scene, he refers to her as "Reader" for the first time. We're guessing this is because you have become intimate with and respectful of Ludmilla to the extent that she becomes an equal "Reader" with you. You've finally conquered her, for lack of a better word, in the same way that you've finally conquered If on a winter's night a traveler.
The scene is also refreshingly platonic, considering all of the sexual escapades you've either read about or engaged in throughout the book—you little devil, you. You might even breathe a sigh of relief to find that things have settled down in this brief final scene. Calvino has more or less openly told you that the story is ending this way because "a story could only end in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and heroine married, or else they died" (21.25). Since you're the main character, you should be happy that it's the former.
But even though you know that Calvino is throwing us the bone we've wanted throughout the entire novel, we can't help but find some comfort in it. In this closing scene, Calvino finally gives us some sense of satisfaction, and you (Shmooper) finish reading If on a winter's night a traveler at the exact same moment as the Reader inside the book.
Buckle your seatbelt because your travels in If on a winter's night a traveler will take you to a chalet in Switzerland, then to South America, and then to an unnamed city that could be, well, anywhere. Oh, and while this is all going down, you also read a series of letters that outline Ermes Marana's travels between Japan and Africa. Whew—we're jetlagged just thinking about it.
Reading this novel might be exhausting, but even as the setting shifts, we notice that each of the ten fictional novels within the book seems to fully absorb each new location. What do we mean? Just think about how the novel Outside the town of Malbork has a very eastern European feel to it, while Around an empty grave is heavily South American in its vocabulary and tone. And check out the chameleon-like work of Calvino as he shifts styles in the Japanese novel, On a carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, whose opening line reads: "The ginkgo leaves fell like fine rain from the boughs and dotted the lawn with yellow" (61.1).
One last thing before we send you on your way around the globe. The setting of If on a winter's night a traveler has a way of leaping out of the book itself and becoming part of your reality—you as the main character, that is. Remember the opening lines of the mini-novel If on a winter's night a traveler, which describe how "steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph" (2.1)? Yep, that's steam from a piston that's being described in the book coming out onto the page itself.
In all of these ways, the changing setting tends to reflect the general instability of the story itself. It's hard to tell what's real and what isn't or to remember where in the world you are at any specific point. So yeah… good luck.
No doubt about it. If on a winter's night a traveler is not your normal, straightforward story. It might take a good long pause to step back and realize what Calvino is doing—jumping from second-person narration into the first chapters of novels that don't actually exist. Throw in his tendency to go off on philosophical rants, and you've got a book that's going to toss you a few tough curveballs.
Once you become comfortable with identifying yourself as the Reader, though, it can all start to come together. You still might not understand everything the book is talking about; but worry not. Some of it is meant not to be understood.
You know you're going to get some crazy language in a book that's all about experimentation. And sure enough, Calvino seems to enjoy showing off his writing agility, moving from short, punchy passages to really long philosophical meanderings on a whim. Overall, he leans a little bit more toward longish sentences, although his educated and playful tone keeps them charming—we promise.
Calvino can be almost journalistic in his simplicity:
So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don't recognize it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? (1.21)
But just as often as you find passages like this, you'll also find ones like this [WARNING: what you are about to read is all a single sentence]:
Little by little you will manage to understand something more about the origins of the translator's machinations: the secret spring that set them in motion was his jealousy of the invisible rival who came constantly between him and Ludmilla, the silent voice that speaks to her through books, this ghost with a thousand faces and faceless, all the more elusive since for Ludmilla authors are never incarnated in individuals of flesh and blood, they exist for her only in published pages, the living and the dead both are there always ready to communicate with her, to amaze her, and Ludmilla is always ready to follow them, in the fickle, carefree relations one can have with incorporeal persons. (13.113)
By varying his sentences so drastically, Calvino is essentially teasing you along his narrative like a fisherman teases a hooked bass. He'll cut you some slack and give you a few paragraphs of easy reading; then he'll jerk the line as hard as he can and bombarding you with long, conceptual sentences that never seem to end.
Let's just hope he doesn't go too far and snap the line, making you chuck his book into a fireplace.
P.S. Don't forget, this book was written in Italian, so in order to really grasp the original style, you're going to have to andare a Roma and brush up on your skills.
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."
There's no way Calvino was going to let you out of this one without throwing some political commentary in. Most of the beef comes in later on in the book, after you (the character) have flown to Ataguitania and become implicated in the exhausting network of revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, real police, fake police… the list goes on.
In a chat with Arkadian Porphyrich, a high official in the country of Ircania, you learn that the dictatorships operate almost entirely on fictional premises, since they intentionally import the same books they ban. Wait, what? Why would they import the books that they prohibit in their country? Porphyrich explains:
every regime, even the most authoritarian, survives in a situation of unstable equilibrium, whereby it needs to justify constantly the existence of its repressive apparatus, therefore of something to repress. (19.7)
In other words, governments create their own enemies in order to have something to show their authority over. Sneaky.
Earlier in the book, the letters of Ermes Marana explain how the translator has been able to strike a deal with an African dictator named President Butamatari; this deal will force Silas Flannery to write a novel praising the dictator's efforts to absorb the provinces surrounding the dictator's country. Throughout If on a winter's night a traveler, there's a deep connection between censorship, propaganda, and government authority. Although as Calvino points out, it's not always as simple a relationship as we might think.
You've probably noticed that If on a winter's night a traveler doesn't present the nicest view of universities and academia in general—especially when it comes to reading.
Whether it's the cramped, dusty office of Uzzi-Tuzii or the annoying rants of Lotaria, the university seems to fulfill no other purpose than ruining the pleasure that comes from an "innocent" reading of books. Sure, Professor Uzzi-Tuzii has his own ideas about reading, and some of them actually seem half-decent; but the man gets too hung up on professional quibbles to really enjoy literature. And as Silas Flannery notes of Lotaria, she reads books "only to find in them what she was already convinced of before reading them" (15.83). Sound like any grad students you know? (Zing!)
In Calvino's text, academic readers tend to be bad readers. Why? Because they bring an agenda to stories and don't allow themselves to keep an open mind while reading. In the end, according to If on a winter's night, academia is annoying at best and corrupt at worst.
This "man of immemorial age" (11.12) is only around for a few pages in the letters of Ermes Marana, but you can tell right away he's high up on the Symbolic Importance Scale. Here's what we know about him: he's an "old Indian" who lives in South America and who, "according to some, is the universal source of narrative material, the primordial magma from which the individual manifestations of each writer develop" (11.12).
So yeah, he's kind of a Big Deal.
This guy fits into the story's larger commentary on storytelling by suggesting that one single source could be responsible for all of the stories in the world. Kind of gives a sense of order to the network of confused authors and titles of books, right?
But don't get too excited. This figure has only a mythical status in the book, and the story seems to discard him just as quickly as it picks him up.
Before we begin, we'd just like to ask: does the name of this group scare the pants of anyone else? Because seriously… nightmares.
The Organization of Apocryphal Power (ah!) was originally founded by Ermes Marana, but it later ousted him and broke off into two rival sects. Both of these sects run around the world stealing manuscripts in hopes of finding a final, ultimate book that will prove that it is on the right side of truth. Here's where each side stands:
(1) The "Archangel of Light" group believes that it can sift through all the counterfeit and crummy books of the world and finally find "a few that bear a truth perhaps extrahuman or extraterrestrial" (11.40). Basically, they're saying that the truth is out there. And it's out there in a book.
(2) The "Archon of Shadow" group is made up of nihilists who "believe that only counterfeiting, mystification, intentional falsehood can represent absolute value in a book" (11.40). Basically, they're saying that you can't find truth in a book, because truth only emerges out of confusion and endless uncertainty.
From Calvino's standpoint, both sides are too extreme. And like Lotaria, they fail as readers because they're too caught up in the set agendas they bring to reading.
Flannery uses his spyglass (this fancy-looking device) to spy on the ladies. Yep. He's kind of a creeper.
If we dig beyond the creepiness, though, this spyglass shows us how men try to gain a sense of power by staring at women as if they were objects. Sort of like the way you, the Reader, think of Ludmilla, right? Yeah, Calvino's consistent.
But why exactly is Flannery spying on this woman to begin with? Well, he wants to know what she's thinking. He has this kind of insane idea that she's reading what he's writing—while he's writing it:
"the sentence I am about to write [is] the one the woman is reading at that same moment. The idea mesmerizes me so much that I convince myself it is true: I write the sentence hastily, get up, go to the window, train my spyglass to check the effect of my sentence in her gaze." (15.4)
So his spyglass might even represent the anxiety that he—an author—feels over wanting to please his reader. Flannery's struggle is the struggle of the author trying to write ideal material for an ideal reader and to get an ideal response.
But in the end, Flannery admits that he often feels "the distance between my writing and her reading is unbridgeable" (15.5). There will always be a gap between writing and the perfection that it's aiming for; there are just too many variables involved in the movement of ideas from author-to-page-to-reader for everything to run perfectly.
But then again, why would Flannery even keep writing if he finally wrote the perfect book? For Calvino, it seems to be the endless failure of words that keeps writers writing.
We'll give you one guess as to what trains represent. Go on, guess.
Yep: movement. Ta-da!
Let's take a closer look. Calvino describes trains as the "locomotives and steam engines of today and yesterday" (2.5). So we're talking about movement through time. If we think about trains as vehicles that move forward along a narrow track, it'll remind us of the forward-moving plotline that Calvino says you expect as a reader.
But from the novel's very beginning, Calvino turns trains into symbols of vagueness, suggesting that they cloud everything around them with smoke—and we mean everything, both inside and outside the book where they're mentioned:
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)
It's because of this smokiness that the sentences you read are unclear, "mov[ing] in vagueness, grayness, in a kind of no man's land of experience" (2.5). This initial confusion of the train station sets the tone for the entire novel. Even toward the end, you'll experience a dream in which you are "stopped amid tracks and signal poles, perhaps a switch point […] There is fog and snow, nothing can be seen" (19.31).
We might expect trains to take us logically from point A to point B, just as we might expect this from a story. But Calvino will have none of it; and throughout the book, his association of trains with uncertainty reminds us that we can't expect much simple reading from this book.
If you didn't notice the shift between third-, second-, and first-person narration, well, you didn't read the book.
The third-person narrator likes to butt into your reading to guide you through the book as a whole, but he also addresses you in the second person, making you the main character of the story. And in case that wasn't confusing enough, all the fictional novels you begin to read are narrated in first-person limited.
Why would Calvino go so crazy with narration? We're guessing it's because this book is an experiment trying to find new ways to tap the potential of novels. Check out, um, any other section of the book for more on this. But he also might be trying to convey his overall point about how one should approach the reading process.
See, the book itself (speaking in third-person omniscient) wants to walk you, the Reader, through an educational journey. But at the same time, it doesn't want you to excuse yourself from its message by saying "well, it's not about me." Instead, it forces you to take on the role of an average or normal reader. This way, the book can tell you things about "yourself" without giving you the option of saying it's wrong, since the book can always pull back at this moment and say "no, not you; the character you're playing."
In Calvino's metaworld, the book literally makes a call on "you" when you sit down to read Italo Calvino's novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Your quest to continue reading this book is endlessly put off as you become interested in other books, but always have your readings interrupted when it's most unbearable to stop. As you move along the quest to finish the books you've started, you also set out to win the heart of your fellow reader, Ludmilla.
Your desire to finish reading your books takes you all over the world and eventually lands you in the middle of a worldwide conspiracy. You travel to countries where dictators impose heavy censorship laws, even as these same dictators import the books that they've banned (no one ever said dictators made sense). Emerging from this muddle is your primary antagonist, the elusive and brilliant—dare we say dastardly?—Ermes Marana. If only he had a moustache to twirl.
You go to a library and finally find success: they have copies of all the books you want to continue reading (why is the library always the last place people check?). But of course, it's too good to be true. For one reason or another, the library isn't able to offer you the books you need. And things were looking so good…
Just when your spirit seems broken, you are verbally assaulted by a group of men reading at the library, who all say that reading should never give you a clear beginning, middle, and end, no matter how much you want these things. You try to plead your case with these people and wave your list of books at them, but they don't seem all that moved.
When you're completely beaten down, one of the men at the library takes the list of books from you and reads the entire thing out loud. All of the titles come together to form a single sentence, which the man is certain is the beginning of some other book he's read. When you insist that you just want the endings to the individual books, he gives you a very succinct and profound account of how novels are supposed to end. Listening to him, you decide that your story cannot end until you choose a final goal, and so you decide to marry Ludmilla.
The decision seems like enough in itself, because within seconds—poof—you're lying in bed and reading next to Ludmilla. It's a scene of total domestic bliss. She asks you to put your bedside lamp out, but you tell her you're just about to finish reading If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. Pretty mind-bending. Kinda makes you wonder if you're a character in someone's novel right now... anyone ever seen The Matrix?
As far as initial situations go, this book is about as literal as it gets. The narrator actually introduces you to the story by saying that you (yes, you) are about to sit down and read Italo Calvino's new book, If on a winter's night a traveler.
The narrator follows this claim with a long explanation of what you might expect to get from this book and what you won't get from it, then describes all the positions you should try out in order to make yourself as comfortable as possible when you read. At first, you might think this is some sort of foreword written by the book's publisher. But as the plot unfolds, the book continues to address "you" as its main character. Confused yet?
You go to a bookstore and get a copy of the exact book you're holding, then take it home, only to find that the story never makes it past the first chapter because of a printer's error. Cursing the names of printers everywhere, you return to the bookshop and meet a woman there who has the same problem. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, you use the misprinted book to strike up a conversation with her. When the initial situation of the book has concluded, you embark on your story with "two different expectations": your expectations for further reading, and your expectation for romance (wink wink).
Maybe not the clearest exposition, but at least we know that you (YOU!) are the main character, you are reading a book, and you like a girl. Moving along.
After you tell the bookstore owner about your problem, he offers you a true copy of Calvino's book, but ends up giving you another book entirely, which is written by some unknown Polish author. Once you've read the first chapter of this new book, though, you no longer care about If on a winter's night a traveler and want to keep reading the story you've started. For various reasons, the action continues like this for eight more novels; in all cases, Calvino only gives you first chapters. So what's the conflict? You can't ever finish even one stinkin' book.
You eventually storm to the printer's, where you learn of a trickster translator's efforts to spread confusion about books through false translation and misprinted titles. The rising action occurs as your journey to finish reading your stories takes you around the globe and lands you in the middle of an international book conspiracy (as though there were any other kind). Tension also builds around the fact that you're becoming…well, let's just say a little bit obsessed by your interest in Ludmilla.
After you've evaded arrest and death several times, you retreat to a library whose catalogue says it contains all of the novels you've been looking for. Overjoyed, you make a list of the titles, but find out that for one reason or another, the library cannot locate any of these books (Who knows? Maybe the librarians are just phoning it in that day).
A number of readers at the library overhear your complaints, and without any invitation on your part, they start lecturing you about how they love reading books that have no clear ending, where meaning endlessly slips away.
You declare that these readers can go ahead and like what they want, but you like books that make total sense and have a clear beginning, middle, end, and a good plot. One of the readers snags your list of books and reads it aloud. It turns out that all of the titles together form a rather beautiful sentence, and he says he can remember reading a novel that begins this way.
Once you hear all the book titles read together in a sentence, you can tell that you've reached the book's climax, because it is clear that all of your interrupted readings and global travels have led you to hear this single sentence. The titles of the books come together like the pieces of a puzzle, and this makes up the climactic "twist" of the book. It's not exactly The Sixth Sense, but it's still pretty clever.
You try to explain to the library reader that the lines he's read are actually the titles of different books, but it does you no good. After the reader gives you a final message about how stories used to end in ancient time, you just up and decide that you want to find Ludmilla and marry her.
You can tell that in these moments you've reached the falling action of the plot, since the revelation of the giant sentence (made from the ten book titles) has been the book's last great twist, and you now reach a point of surrender as the book "falls" into its ending: your decision to marry Ludmilla. The book never tells us what Ludmilla's opinion of your marriage plan is, but instead just assumes she'll be cool with it.
In the book's final scene, you are lying in bed next to Ludmilla (a scene you've fantasized about earlier in the book). Despite the frustration that the book's plot has caused you, Calvino takes pity and gives you a traditional resolution in his dénouement, showing that you and Ludmilla have indeed gotten married.
Now that the falling action has led you to this final dénouement, the book has one more clever treat for you: Ludmilla wants you to shut your bedside light off, but you tell her to hold on just a second, since you're just about to finish reading If on a winter's night a traveler. At this moment, all of your disappointment and suffering seem like they've been worth it… almost.
You realize that "you" are the main character of this book (which is weird); then you go to the bookstore to look for If on a winter's night a traveler (which you are reading), and find out there's a problem with the book's printing. You go back to the store and meet an attractive young woman who has encountered the same problem. Now you're seduced both by the story you've started reading and by the woman, who just so happens to give you her phone number. Just tell us you didn't introduce yourself to her as Unnamed Reader.
You go through a series of adventures, finally deciding to visit the publisher who seems to be responsible for all the confusion around the books you've been reading. There, you encounter the letters of a man named Ermes Marana, a publishing prankster who seems dedicated to spreading the exact kind of confusion you've been suffering from. You also read the diary of a famous detective fiction writer, and before you know it, you're halfway around the globe and implicated in an international book conspiracy. In the meantime, your unfinished readings are piling up faster than English class homework.
You retreat to a library that is supposed to contain all of the books you've started reading. But you find out that the library can't locate any of them. How's that for service? A bunch of other readers start to wax poetic on the nature of reading, and you say you don't care about the stuff they're saying; you're just a regular dude who wants a clear story with a satisfying end. In this scene, you find out the true meaning of the titles of all your books and suddenly decide to marry Ludmilla. Then just like that, you're lying next to her in bed, and are finally able to finish If on a winter's night a traveler. Phew.