Italo Calvino Wrote a Novel About You
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino is a book that has garnered a strong cult following, but warrants mainstream attention. The book itself is not so much about winter or a traveler, but about the spaces around reading and writing a novel. The ingenious first line, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler,” instantly includes any possible reader while employing the most unused perspective in fiction: the second person. The second person is the You form, as opposed to the far more often used first person, I, or third person, s/he form.
Using the second person, the book is already in daring territory. The potential risk authors take when using the You form is isolating the reader. For example, if an author states, "You are sitting on the patio… " what if You're not on the patio, but sitting in the kitchen? Or, "You're crying," but You are a man who hates crying? It’s hard for any reader to keep reading when the You isn’t You. For this reason, most authors avoid this perspective like the moon avoids the sun because the difficulty lies in addressing all readers in a way that isn't isolating. In Calvino’s novel however, the reader cannot help but identify with the You perspective because any reader reading the book is doing exactly what the first line suggests; reading the novel.
With half the book consisting of the Second Person chapters, the other half is the beginnings of a novel, in which the main character, You, are reading. There are 10 of these beginnings and each is cut short at the moment when You most want it to continue. This drives You mad, and so You search for the missing pages, first by returning to the bookstore to complain. There You meet the Other Reader, who just so happens to be reading the same book and was cut off just the same. You return home with the completed novel to find it isn’t the novel you started at all, but a completely different novel. Enraged, you call the Other Reader to find out if the same is true for her. It is. This leads You on an adventure to find the missing pages, each time finding Yourself involved with a different novel.
It’s true, Calvino spared no expense in this complicated and layered structure. It may seem too daunting or complicated a book, though this couldn’t be further from the truth. Calvino is a master; he’s clear, takes his time, and chooses his words carefully. Essentially, he cares about you’re experience reading his book. It’s quite personal. At the same time, he has the plot, the theory, the prose to make this book a modern masterpiece.
At 260 pages, there is not one sentence that is flat or too loaded. Reading Calvino is like being an experienced surfer riding a single wave for miles on end, smooth and enjoyable, with enough depth for second and third reads. The plus is that not much reading experience is needed; both the literary elite, the common novel lover, and the writer can read this book with pleasure. If worst comes to worst, you could just read half the book and not bother with the other chapters. In the end, one may be surprised to find that Calvino himself would approve of this practice, as there is more than one way to read a book.