Book Review--If on a winter's night a traveler


This was easily one of the strangest--if not the strangest--book I've ever read. 

Once a month, my office spends half the day out of the office at a local bookstore, browsing the shelves and discussing--what else?--books. Each editor brings an excerpt from a book they've read, and we break into small groups and talk about the pros and cons of the excerpt and ways it works or doesn't, as well as whether or not we should even attempt to suggest such a writing device to our authors. (Usually the answer is no.)

It was on one such occasion that a coworker introduced me to If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I was immediately intrigued by the title. I wondered what sort of author would make the title of his work an incomplete sentence.

Then, my coworker went on to give a brief synopsis, and it only served to further arouse my curiosity. Basically, she said, it's about someone reading a book. 

Now, I realize that to any normal person, a premise of this sort would sound horribly boring. But I wanted to know more. 

"What's it really about?" I asked, sure there had to be something else behind such a simple idea.
"It's about someone trying to read, only he keeps getting interrupted. It's about his quest to finish the book," she replied. 

Then she read the first paragraph of the opening chapter, and it was so unique, I knew I had to read this book immediately: 

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. 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--they won't hear you otherwise--"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or, if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone. 

I was, as any astute reader would be, surprised--no, shocked--by the use of second person.  It's not something I see often in a book; and if I do see it, it isn't done well.

The first chapter goes on to narrate the ways one should sit while reading, the things one should think about before reading, and the things one should expect during reading. It was extremely odd and yet also humorously entertaining and the perfect hook to draw me into the second chapter. That's where another surprise was waiting.

I found out that the entire novel is not, like I originally believed, in second person the whole time. It switches back and forth, with every chapter alternating between discussing the Reader in second person and the story itself, which is told in third person. 

The whole thing was strange but easy to get used to, and I was glad for it in the end. As interesting as I found the second-person narration, I realized the immediate action that second person requires (ie., doing things in the now) can get tiresome after a while, and the chapters in third person were a comforting relief, enough to give me a breath and get me ready for the next chapter. 

If I haven't confused you already, well done. I'll reward you by moving on from second/third person to talk about the plot itself. On the most basic level, it really is just about someone reading. There's the Reader (who is never given a name but solely referred to as Reader), who begins reading a book called If on a winter's night a traveler. The beginning of this story is chapter 2 of the book and is titled as such. The problem is that at it's most suspenseful moment, the book suddenly ends, and the Reader discovers that the book he's reading has been accidentally spliced together with a different book. 

In the following chapter, the Reader heads back to the bookstore to purchase a new copy of the book that got interrupted, only to discover that the store is out of that particular book. And not only that, but there's another reader (named later in the story but at the beginning is just referred to as Other Reader), who is at the bookstore looking for the same book, because her copy is also defective.

Such begins Calvino's novel, and the two Readers continue on, trying to finish the story they'd started but finding only the beginnings of new stories they are unable to finish. 

I moved through the first half of the book fairly easily. Once I got the hang of the pattern and what the general plot was about, it was interesting and fun and many times made me think. There was, however, a point in the middle--as happens with some books--where I got stuck and had to put it down for a few days. I just wasn't excited to keep going, and the narrative had started to bore me. Still, the plot was intriguing enough to keep me moving, because I really wanted to know how it was all going to end. So I pressed on. (It's a fairly short book, and after reading Bonhoeffer, nothing appears long to me anymore anyway.)

The last third was where the plot lost me, and I finished the book at a bit of a loss. I'm still not sure what exactly Calvino intended, though I suspect I was trying to look deeper into the narrative than he meant. You'll see what I mean if you read it.

I realize this review does not shine the best light on If on a winter's night a traveler, and you might be wondering why anyone should bother to read it if it was so confusing and odd and boring. Well, confusing and odd, yes, it was; and though I did say I got bored in the middle, I would not call the book itself boring.

Overall, I'm certainly glad I read it, and I did not feel that it was a waste of time. (Like I did after finishing Love in the Time of Cholera. Terrible book. Save yourself.) This novel was clever and thought provoking and well written and unlike anything else I've ever picked up. I don't think I'll read it again, but--at the risk of sounding contradictory--I would recommend it. 

After finishing it, I looked back and realized the book itself speaks on various themes, all related in some way to writing and reading. The relationship between author and reader is one. The relationship between fiction and real life. How one reads and what the material means to the reader is discussed in the final chapters by four readers in a library and proved to be an interesting discourse. 

The ending itself reveals a hidden element, which I won't spoil for you (though some disagree with me that a reader of any review should be prepared for spoilers), proving that Italo Calvino's book If on a winter's night a traveler is even more than it appears and is one of those books that keeps you thinking even after the conclusion of the final chapter. 

So read it, please. And quickly, so we can discuss what I was confused about before I forget.