The book begins with a chapter on the art and nature of reading, and is subsequently divided into twenty-two passages. The odd-numbered passages and the final passage are narrated in the second person. That is, they concern events purportedly happening to the novel's reader. (Some contain further discussions about whether the man narrated as "you" is the same as the "you" who is actually reading.) These chapters concern the reader's adventures in reading Italo Calvino's novel, If on a winter's night a traveller. Eventually the reader meets a woman, who is also addressed in her own chapter, separately, and also in the second person.English translation (part two) - A delightfully meta TVTropes page
Alternating between second-person narrative chapters of this story are the remaining (even) passages, each of which is a first chapter in ten different novels, of widely varying style, genre, and subject-matter. All are broken off, for various reasons explained in the interspersed passages, most of them at some moment of plot climax.
The second-person narrative passages develop into a fairly cohesive novel that puts its two protagonists on the track of an international book-fraud conspiracy, a mischievous translator, a reclusive novelist, a collapsing publishing house, and several repressive governments.
The Distance of the Moon - Calvino takes the fact that the Moon used to be much closer to the Earth, and builds a story about a love triangle among people who used to jump between the Earth and the Moon, in which lovers drift apart as the Moon recedes. [See also this wistful animated version]Six Memos for the Next Millennium - a lecture series Calvino almost completed before his death, discussing six key values:
At Daybreak — Life before matter condenses.
A Sign in Space — The idea that the galaxy slowly revolves becomes a story about a being who is desperate to leave behind some unique sign of his existence.
All at One Point — The fact that all matter and creation used to exist in a single point. "Naturally, we were all there—old Qfwfq said—where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?"
Without Colors — Before there was an atmosphere, everything was the same shade of gray. As the atmosphere appears, so do colors.
Games Without End — A galactic game of marbles back before the universe had formed much more than particles.
The Aquatic Uncle — A tale on the fact that at one stage in evolution animals left the sea and came to live on land. The story is about a family living on land that is a bit ashamed of their old uncle who still lives in the sea, refusing to come ashore like "civilized" people.
How Much Shall We Bet? — A story about betting on the long term evolution of mankind.
The Dinosaurs — How some dinosaurs lived after most of them had become extinct, and how it felt to be that last existing dinosaur in an age where all the current mammals feared his kind as demons.
The Form of Space — As the unnamed narrator "falls" through space, he cannot help but notice that his trajectory is parallel to that of a beautiful woman, Ursula H'x, and that of lieutenant Fenimore, who is also in love with Ursula. The narrator dreams of the shape of space changing, so that he may touch Ursula (or fight with Fenimore).
The Light Years — The unnamed narrator looking at other galaxies, and spotting one with a sign pointed right at him saying "I saw you." Given that there's a gulf of 100,000,000 light years, he checks his diary to find out what he had been doing that day, and finds out that it was something he wished to hide. Then he starts to worry.
The Spiral — A story about life as a mollusc, and the nature of love and writing.
1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: 'I'm rereading…', never 'I'm reading….'Calvino on Myth - Inevitability in Storytelling
2. The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual's or the collective unconscious.
4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.
8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.
11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.
13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.
14. A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.
"What meaning does your construction have?" he asks. "What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?"
"We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now," they answer.
Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. "There is the blueprint," they say.
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