On Travel & Reading: Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller

When we were in Mongolia, I finally got around to finishing the gorgeous book that M. gave me for my birthday (*cough* two years ago *cough*), Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller.

Why don’t English speakers read more books originally written in different languages? It’s something I didn’t considered before dating a European. Almost every other language reads Shakespeare (many countries read him more than Australian students do!), yet the only time I ever read authors that weren’t British, American, or Canadian  was in my French classes, in their original French. We English-speakers miss a huge chunk of the world’s literature by ignoring translations.

Anyway, back to Calvino. I sometimes think that books just need to wait to be read when you need them, you know? Maybe I just say that to justify the time this one spent gathering dust on my bedside table, but it meant something more to me to read this unusually structured novel about reading and writing when I did. I turned back to this one on an amazing trip, after I’d written the first draft of my own novel, at a time when I was spending a lot of time thinking about my next step. It’s frustrating that it seems like the only time I really get to settle in and read lately is when I’m away– although that’s half the fun of travel for me, getting to read the things I haven’t made time for during my working life.

Ok, actually moving on to Calvino this time. While I loved the whole book, this particular passage struck me as I read it on the plane home:


“You fasten your seatbelt. The plane is landing. To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you vanished. Meanwhile, what do you do? How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world and of the world from you? You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and the other, because beyond the page there is the void, the anonymity of stopovers, of the metallic uterus that contains you and nourishes you, of the passing crowd always different and always the same. You might as well stick with this other abstraction of travel, accomplished by the anonymous uniformity of typographical characters: here, too, it is the evocative power of the names that persuades you that you are flying over something and not nothingness. You realize that it takes considerable heedlessness to entrust yourself to unsure instruments, handled with approximation; or perhaps this demonstrates an invincible tendency to passivity, to regression, to infantile dependence. (But are you reflecting on the air journey or on reading?)”


It takes a bit of unravelling, but it’s absolutely brilliant. I know I’ll be thinking about this quote every time I travel on a plane (or read a book) from now on.

(excerpted from the Vintage Classics 1998 edition of Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, translated from Italian to English by William Weaver)

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