If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

If On a Winter's Night a TravellerIf On a Winter’s Night a Traveller is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. It started with you, the Reader, going to a bookshop to buy the latest book by Italo Calvino titled If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. You go back home and start reading. The book starts with new chapter titled If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. You finish the first chapter and find the rest of the pages are blank. You go back to the bookshop to get a replacement and meet a woman, the Other Reader.

The book is told in alternate chapters between the main story of you the Reader, and the chapters of books you are reading. In some bizarre out-of-this-world circumstances, trying to look for the right complete book, you keep getting different books, and unfinished ones at that.

The main story is very hard to summarize. It’s about books, readers, authors, publishing industry, translations, and banned books. There’s this passage at the first chapter that I’d love to share:

“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. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.” ~ p 5-6

Italo CalvinoI believe a lot of you understand the experience above :)

There are some great parts and the idea of the book itself is just brilliant, but after a while I found it very exhausting to read as it opens a new chapter of a different book on and on. The book is only 254 pages but it took me ages to finish and it felt super long. The problem for me is, I find about the first quarter of any book is usually the most tiring, takes the most energy, and is probably least interesting — while for some people it’s probably the most exciting part. Therefore I found it exhausting to enter a new story, in fact a dozen of them, in one book. It probably works better for people who are fan of short stories. I admit that near the end I couldn’t pretend to care about the fragments of the stories that the Reader was reading anymore and started to speed read, as I know I wouldn’t see the end of them.

On the note of the translation, I have suspicion that the translation is not great. It’s often read like a technical book and quite dry at times.

I would recommend the book for people who like quirky books and short stories. I would like to read more Calvino’s in the future. Any that you’d highly recommend?

3.5 stars
1979 (Italian) – 1981 (English), 254 pp

First line
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

Last line
And you say, “Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.”

Lost in Translation (book #5), Orbis Terrarum 2009 (book #10), (Another) 1% Well-Read (book #9), 1001 Books Before You Die, Reading the World

Also reviewed by
Liked it! – A Striped ArmchairBending Bookshelf | Shelf Love3000 Books | A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook | books i done read | A Damned Conjuror | Booknotes by Lisa | Life and Times of a “New” New Yorker
Unsure? – Things Mean A Lot (probably the closest to my opinion)

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27 thoughts on “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino”

    1. The majority seems to really like it, so I was a bit bumped that I didn’t much. I really wanted to like the book too. I don’t think I would read it again, but I’m willing to try his other works.

    1. You and I seem to have similar taste (definitely so on this book). I like weird too and it reminds me a bit of Murakami, but for some reason it was less engaging and a bit messy. The bookish passages were the main thing that kept me going.

  1. Sounds very very interesting to me :) I like “quirky” books, especially the mind-blowingly surreal ones, and the insanely unique ones like this (LOL!). My only problem is that I tend to buy books like these but apparently never get to reading them. I somehow tended to prioritize the more “serious” or “traditional” books this year. But this sounds like something I’d like to add to my queue for next year, perhaps to add variety and spice things up.

    Thanks for the honest and rather informative review :)
    .-= [Mark David´s last blog: Review: The Historian] =-.

    1. I’d say make a rule to just buy book that you want to read immediately. That way you don’t keep acquiring books that you may read only years later. I find that my taste can change as well, so one book that I want to read today, I may not want to read a year later (by then the book would be on my shelf for a while and I’d feel guilty not to read it). This rule works for me most of the time, but I still can’t resist book sale (or known as super cheap books). I do manage to restrain myself a lot on buying new books. I try to use libraries as much as possible too.

      I’m not very sure about your taste yet, but if you’re in the mood for quirky, this could be the one :)

      1. Haha, sometimes I can’t figure out your taste as well. But I guess that means you’re quite the versatile reader ;) I do try to be practical when buying books but sometimes I just can’t fight the compulsion because here in the Philippines there’s a good chance that what’s available now at the bookstore won’t be there for so long. It actually happened to me once that I decided not to buy a book that interested me but then had a change of heart as soon as I got home. The next day, I went back to the store but it was no longer there. That disappointed me a lot, hehe.
        .-= [Mark David´s last blog: Review: The Historian] =-.

  2. This book is something I’ve been meaning to read for ages (partly because David Mitchell has said it’s one of his favourite books), but it does seem like something I’ll need to give my full attention so I’m saving it for a really stormy day and it will stay on my wish list until then. It’s difficult to write a review when your feelings about the book are complex but you’ve done a great job!
    .-= [Sakura´s last blog: 2010 Challenges] =-.

    1. On the other hand, I’ve been meaning to read one of David Mitchell’s books but have not!
      Nymeth and I seems to agree that If On A Winter is a book that requires your time and can’t be rushed through. So your plan sounds like a good idea. Thanks for the compliment. I’m glad I was able to convey what I was trying to say :)

  3. Wow, seems complex yet intriguing!
    You wrote a great review about it for someone who says it’s hard to summarize ;)
    I’d really love to try it one day.
    Will put it on my TBR, not sure whether I can get it here but I will try it some day in future!

  4. I am so ashamed to say I’ve read nothing of Calvino’s work so far, but as weird as you say this is, I’m intrigued. You can’t love Murakami and not love weird! They’ve opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking and writing. Thanks for bringing this book to my awareness.

    1. This is my first Calvino too bellezza. I can’t remember exactly how the book was calling out to me in the first place. It was probably the title. Like sushu said, I couldn’t get the title, so I went to read it to know what the book was about. Lol.

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