I’ve been reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, translated most skillfully by William Weaver. It’s taking me much longer than it ought, seeing as how delightful it is and how reluctant I am to put it down once I pick it up.
If I ever die (what a peculiar thing to say – of course I’ll die. And yet I can’t bring myself to say it with certainty. I need…the possibility…of something else.), I hope it happens quickly. I hope I don’t have even a millisecond to register that I am dying – I hope I am simply dead. Because if a tiny crumb of Time is given to me, I will consume it with one thought, and that thought will not concern myself, my family, any place I did not travel to, any thing I did not learn, or any amount of money I failed to make. The thought will be: I have not read enough, I have not written enough, and just thinking about thinking this thought makes me weak and nervous, tight-throated. Whenever I think about how I may someday think this thought in some vague version of my future, I immediately start scrambling for all those books I want to read, and reread, and I start reading scraps of them all, absorbing none of them, and it’s awful.
(That was a very good excuse to not have finished a book yet, wasn't it? I'm almost proud.)
So Chapter One of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler: It begins by greeting you, the reader, very fearlessly, flaunting its second person with a sly I’m-very-clever-don’t-you-think-so? smile. (I do, in fact, think so.) It soon flashes back to when you bought the book in the bookstore. After it's done describing how you bought the book, a new sort of unfinished story begins, about a traveler in a train station.
The part that addresses the reader directly feels more like a prologue than the first chapter, as if the two separate sections were accidentally merged. I wish it were a prologue, because then I would be able to say I have a favorite prologue, and it’s Italo Calvino’s, and I would feel somehow more well-read if I could say this.
Italo Calvino, like most writers, is obviously a reader. Here’s an excerpt from his should-be-a-prologue-chapter-one:
“In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.”
And he continues to describe, among others,
Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
Books You Can Borrow From Somebody
Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages
Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
It brings me so much pleasure to be accurately described. What gives me even more pleasure, however, is seeing the world through a lucid lens that is far too lucid to be my own. Italo Calvino saw the world crystal clear. He must have, to alertly take note of how his own head processed the various books in a bookstore. These are all thoughts I’ve had as a reader and book-buyer, but I’ve never thought about those thoughts. I’ve never acknowledged that I have those thoughts, before Calvino pointed it out to me.
One of the most pleasing things a writer can do for a reader is point out a reader’s thoughts, and force, for a time, mindfulness into the spirit of the reader.