Where two people endeavor to destroy their friendship by making each other read things the other person will most likely hate.
First, a quick recap.
A long time ago in a land...right here, two friend with very different tastes in books decided to embark on a grand (and potentially torturous experiment). They decided that they would each suggest books for the other person that said person would probably never choose to read on their own. One of these people was me. The other was my friend Masika.
In part one of our journey, I did not hate Masika's sci-fi horror rec, but I didn't love it either. Masika, on the other hand, appeared to hate basically every moment of my recommendation. We shared our thoughts on our blogs and then suggested new books to each other. And so I give you Part 2 of Don't Judge a Book by Its Genre, for which I read Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler and Masika read Far From the Tree by Robin Benway.
Masika's Review: Far From the Tree
Go read Masika's full review here.
In retrospect, I sort of wish I'd suggested a different book for Masika. Mostly because long ago Masika and discussed our shared love of Sherman Alexie's book Flight, and this book shares some similar themes but doesn't get nearly as real with them. Masika suggests in her review that this is in many ways the version of Flight teachers would be allowed to bring into classrooms, and she's 100% right. Flight got labeled an adult book and thrown out of classrooms even though it's a book many, many students I've worked with needed to read.* Masika asked some key questions during our discussion of the book: "Did she set out to write a great book, or to write a marketable book that would sell great as class sets? And by which standard am I supposed to judge it?"
I'm a white woman (like the author of this book) who grew up with a meal on my table every night of my childhood and never fought nearly as hard as I should have against book censorship in the schools I worked in. So I don't think I'm the right person to try and answer either question where this book is concerned. But they're certainly questions I find myself thinking about all the time, especially in regards to my own writing. Especially in a kidlit publishing world where books often live and die depending on how well publishers think they will sell in schools.
Towards the end of her review Masika asks: "Is it possible that Johanna won't be able to find the book that inspires me to love its emotional arcs?" Well, maybe not. We always knew that was a possibility when we launched this project. But Masika's rec reminded me that I can still find time to enjoy the less emotional and more cerebral literary pursuits, so I remain dedicated to the challenge. Read on to learn more about what Italo Calvino's writing did to my brain.
*Masika addresses Alexie's problematic history with sexual assault in her review.
Winter Nights, Post-Modernism, and Deeeep Quotes
When Masika and I picked our recent recommendations, she told me she was choosing If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino because it is a book that centers around ideas, not emotion. This made sense, as Masika and I have had many conversations lately where we have tried to discover the dividing line of our reading tastes. One such conversation had us questioning if the largest dividing line exists around thought vs. feelings. Put another way: do I prefer to read books that put feeling and emotions centerstage while Masika prefers to read books that put thought and ideas at the forefront of the writing? Our most recent recs put this question to the test. Masika recommended Calvino, while I recommended Far From the Tree by Robin Benway to her. That book should come with its own box of tissues. It’s also one of my favorites.
If on a winter’s night a traveler is, no doubt, one of the most metacognitive pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Calvino spends the book exploring the art of storytelling on a multitude of levels. Told largely in the second person, the book is the story of a reader (YOU, THE READER) who journeys through the reading of ten different novels, all of which are interrupted and taken from them at key moments. The reader looks desperately for the end of these of these books on a bizarre maze of adventures while simultaneously pursuing another reader taking a similar journey. None of the ten novels are ever finished, leaving both the fictional and real-life reader suspended at key points within all of them.
The book is certainly not devoid of emotion. In fact, what sometimes makes the journey of the reader so engaging is the wild emotion they feel at having stories ripped away from them so abruptly. While this book is in some ways a love story between two people, it is more a love story between a reader and the idea of story itself. It explores why we love stories. Why does plot matter to us? How do we function to build relationships with characters and themes? What is the true relationship between an author and the reader of a story?
With that said, I sure did have an awful lot of thoughts while reading this book. Thoughts about my own relationship with “plot junkie-ism” and what it means to read or write for plot. Thoughts about what I expect from authors I regularly read and thoughts about what my readers expect from me. Thoughts about where I end and the words on any page I read or write begin. Soooo many thoughts about postmodernism happened while I was reading this book.
Did I love this book? I’m honestly not sure Calvino wrote this book for a reader like me to love. If Calvino wanted to write a book a reader like me would love, he would have written the full novel of the first story that is “cut off” in the book: the one, aptly titled, "If on a winter’s night a traveler." That book would surely have been filled with feisty plot lines and intrigue and engagingly complex characters. But Calvino didn’t write that book. Instead he cut it off at a key point in the story and sent his reader on a never-ending hunt to find the rest of it. And so, when I was in the mood to explore the art of storytelling, I loved this book. When I was in the mood to see what happened to the people carting around a dead body in the back of their car, I was less enthused. And that’s probably how Calvino intended things to be.
In any case, I leave you with some of my favorite quotes from If on a winter’s night, because there are far too many brilliant lines in this book for them to go unappreciated. Number two explains my problem with all audiobooks in near-perfect succinctness. The last one is basically exactly how I feel this week. I may not have “loved” this book in the traditional sense, but it certainly did speak to my reading and writing neurosis.
“I…have been convinced for some time that perfection is not produced except marginally and by chance.”
"Listening to someone read aloud is very different from reading in silence. When you read, you can stop or skip sentences; you are the one who sets the pace. When someone else is reading, it is difficult to make your attention coincide with the tempo of his reading: the voice either goes too fast or too slow.”
“There is a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them….This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the word of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers.”
“How many years has it been since I could abandon myself to a book written by another, with no relation to what I must write myself?...Since I have become a slave labor of writing, the pleasure of reading has finished for me.”
“Only the ability to be read by a given individual proves that what is written shares in the power of writing, a power based on something that goes beyond the individual.”
“The fact is that for some time this writer has been undergoing a crisis and can’t write any more. The newspapers are wondering what the reason could be. According to our calculations, it could be the inhabitants of other worlds keeping him inactive, so that he will be drained of terrestrial conditionings and become receptive.”