Lunch time reading is a beautiful thing – principally as a mental break from work (i.e., reading math), but also because, between brushing crumbs from the page and pausing to explain myself to passing officemates and professors, I may hit upon the sort of literary fireworks that explode golden behind the eyes and make you gasp aloud. O glorious revelatory instants! This afternoon’s enjoyment was at least partially egotism, because I’ve felt what Italo Calvino speaks of, but he takes more risks in his question:

Will I ever be able to say, “Today it writes,” just like “Today it rains,” “Today it is windy”? Only when it will become natural to me to use the verb “write” in the impersonal form will I be able to hope that through me is expressed something less limited than the personality of an individual.

And it is true. When I have written well, truly written well, I would have said “It writes.” Those were the times when I became a channel, and my fingers and mind were trying to stay out of the way of the thoughts flowing through them. This is the feeling of being held under by the waterfall, that glory of drowning in the flow of words and ideas. It doesn’t happen very often. My good writing is writing envisioned through the memory of great writing. And the latter has only happened a couple times. But the true estimate of someone’s ability is in his or her good writing. The telling question is, having seen the brink and jotted some of it down, how well does a writer translate that glimpse of the abyss back into the daily grind?

Reading those lines again, I wonder if Calvino felt something similar. I’d like to think so. Regardless, as much as I was starting to lose interest in If on a winter’s night a traveler, I’ve been recaptured. I’m impressed. The resurrection from what was rapidly turning into a self-referential mire was beautifully timed. Using the very structure of the book Calvino flirts with inciting frustration, confusion, even rage in the reader, but through all these I was still hooked. I still wanted to keep reading. It was a recent creeping sense of indifference that had struck me as the book’s death knell. And now he’s overcome that, too. Bravo.

Don’t read If on a winter’s night a traveler if you want a fun story. Read it if you want to bounce about a few different ideas of what a book could be, or could not be. Read it if you want to find the extremities to which an author can push you and still hold your interest. Read it if you want to be teased. That sounds a little sick, but give it a shot. I think we all here have enough masochism in us to enjoy the ride.

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