Customer Review

176 of 189 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A conceptual review of a conceptual book, March 29, 2002
This review is from: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Paperback)
You are getting ready to read an review of Italo Calvino's book "If on a winter's night a traveller". Is your mouse nearby? Are you sitting in a comfortable chair? You're not slouching over the keyboard, are you? Sit up! Now, rub your eyes, close any windows containing video games, and read on.
Besides Tom Robbins' "Half Asleep in Frog's Pajamas", this is the only book you've ever read written (mostly) in second person narration. 'You' are the protagonist of the story, and are directly addressed by the author/narrator. 'You' are the Reader. This is a technique that Calvino uses very well, especially when he manages to predict (or accurately tell) the circumstances around how 'you' bought the book, how 'you're' reading it, and 'your' thoughts and feelings concerning it.
You notice that this book has no story, per se. Instead, it is about Stories. The structure of the book is more important than the narrative thrust. A Reader (you) begins reading Italo Calvino's new book, "If on a winter's night a traveller". But the book is misprinted, and ends halfway through. So you head down to the bookshop, anxious to get your money back. There you encounter The Other Reader, a young woman also foiled in her attempt to read Calvino's new book. You both buy a new copy from the shopkeeper, only when you get it home, you realize it is not Calvino's new book at all, but something called "Outside the town of Malbork". Things continue this way, back and forth from thwarted novel to encounters with The Other Reader (who, by this time, you've developed quite a crush on). Along the way, you will meet many other shady literary characters, like The Non Reader, The Writer, and the Plagiarist. Do not be afraid of these men. They are merely devices to get you thinking about the nature of reading, the nature of writing, the nature of authorship, and a number of other significant post-modern issues.
This all sounds quite fascinating to you, but you still have trepidations. You have a copy of the book with you right now. To help quench your fears you open it up, seemingly at random, to page 197, and read the following exchange:
"'On the contrary, I am forced to stop reading just when [the stories] become more gripping. I can't wait to resume, but when I think I am reopening the book I began, I find a completely different book before me...'
'Which instead is terribly boring,' I suggest.
'No, even more gripping. But I can't manage to finish this one, either. And so on.'"
You think this is pretty good so far. But wonder, is Calvino right on either count? Would such a novel be "terribly boring", or "even more gripping"? Would you get frustrated beyond repair if the story kept stopping, every time it got good? You realize that you must decide for yourself before you begin reading the book in earnest.
Continuing your perusal on the same page, you read the following passage:
"I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can't go beyond the beginning... He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged..."
You stop, because you can see where this is going. This is Calvino telling you the genesis of this book. This kind of self-reflexivity sometimes gives you a headache, for a story within a story within a story (etc.) can sometimes be very confusing. You stop reading for a while to get your bearings.
You take a break by going to the fridge for a glass of juice.
Later, you flip the book open again, this time to page 218, and you notice this:
"Then what use is your role as protagonist to you? If you continue lending yourself to this game, it means that you, too, are an accomplice of the general mystification."
"Calvino is challenging me?" you think to yourself. "He doesn't think I am capable of following him through this labyrinthine world. He doesn't think I have the brainpower. But I do!" You are getting a good head of steam now. "I can read his book, no problem! I am a Good Reader."
You turn to page one, intent on starting and then finishing this book. And when you do, you'll realize that it was a rewarding, if oftentimes difficult and confusing, experience. It will have questioned your preconceived notions of what it means to read, write, to tell stories, and to listen to them. And it will do it in a (mostly) fascinating and suspenseful way, to make the ideas go down that much easier.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 29, 2009 10:17:22 PM PDT
G L G says:
Dear Mike Stone,

Congratulations, this is the first review I've ever read that actually does justice to my all-time favorite book.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 5, 2009 7:08:04 PM PDT
Louise Hawes says:
I agree. Loved the parody with which you opened, and appreciated the intelligence and sensitivity of all that followed. What a breath of fresh critical air here on a-zon! Thanks!

Posted on Oct 29, 2009 7:15:13 AM PDT
excellent and amusing overview to one of mv favorite books.

Posted on Dec 31, 2009 1:05:00 PM PST
J.S. says:
Bit of trivia: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is another novel written in the second person, though "you" refers to the story's actual protagonist rather than the novel's reader.

Posted on Jun 25, 2010 2:01:11 AM PDT
Brian Eha says:
I already wanted to purchase this novel, and your review clinched it for me. Grazie!

Posted on Oct 13, 2011 6:20:38 PM PDT
Not that they're really similar, but I think if you liked this you would like "Speedboat", by Renata Adler and "The Tradgedy of Arthur", by Arthur Philips. So, based on your review, I'd probably like "If on a Winter's Night...".

Posted on Sep 24, 2014 8:12:06 PM PDT
Bookbug says:
You recall a college roommate telling you about this book 25 years ago. The idea of the book has never left you, although you lost your taste for literary fiction sometime during your college years. You've never gotten around to picking up a copy, but still the book--the IDEA of the book--lingers in your memory.

You are sitting at your computer late on a Wednesday night, waiting for your freshly washed face to dry so you can apply your annoying topical medication. You are killing time. You recall that book with the evocative title. You sit down and type it in to amazon. Not to read the book, of course--you have Other Commitments. You are only 75% of the way through a library copy of _Watchmen_, and you had to return _The Magicians_ to the library earlier today. Another Reader had requested it. That was a book that was properly printed and had A Proper Ending, but still--you did not read fast enough, and the book was taken away from you.

You read Mike Stone's review, which was written 12 years ago. Remarkably, this is about the midpoint in time between the year you first heard about this book and now. Mike Stone wants to know if your posture is correct as you sit at your computer. It is NOT! You are slouching like a hyena, if hyenas sat in chairs. How could Mike Stone have known, all those years ago, the exact physical circumstances under which you would be contemplating his review? It is remarkable. You find the book--the IDEA of the book--more intriguing than ever.

This comment would have a better ending if you ordered the book. But you are a devout Library Patron. Also, you are on a budget. Instead of buying a book that starts ten stories and does not finish any of them, you will request it from the library. But not until you have finished Watchmen and sought out another copy of The Magicians and finished that also. They are both good books. You hope that If On a Winter's Night a Traveler ... will also prove to be good. Perhaps you will even read it at the normal reading speed of a Dedicated Reader, rather than at the speed of Literate Hyena.
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