Calvino on Bookstores

Partially in response to nzumel’s comment on my last post regarding amazon vs. the independent bookseller, and partly as my own personal counterpoint to that post, here’s an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s first chapter of “If on a winter’s night a traveler.” This description of the book-buying experience is so perfect, and this is one area of this whole debate where amazon can never win. Let’s just get to Calvino, he communicates this far better than I ever could.

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning Top Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books by Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).

All this simply means that, having rapidly glanced over the titles of the volumes displayed in the bookshop, you have turned toward a stack of If on a winter’s night a traveler fresh off the press, you have grasped a copy, and you have carried it to the cashier so that your right to own it can be established.

You cast another bewildered look at the books around you (or, rather: it was the books that looked at you, with the bewildered gaze of dogs who, from their cages in the city pound, see a former companion go off on the leash of his master, come to rescue him), and out you went.

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10 thoughts on “Calvino on Bookstores

  1. Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like. Actually, that’s a bit of what it’s like just searching through my own bookshelves…

    I haven’t read If on a winter’s night a traveler in years. Thanks for reminding me. I may have to go read it again.

  2. Love how his words are coming back to remind us of the experience, scenes of bookshops in movies may come to be somewhat classic and old-fashioned in the future, we should all start writing about it!

  3. Pingback: Gore Vidal (and others) on why Italo Calvino is so great | Intelligent Life

  4. Pingback: T H E : N e X T : S T A T I O N – La ragione conoscitiva: la cosmicomica parabola di Italo Calvino « HyperHouse

    • I felt the same thing starting that book. It really opened me up to an entirely different way of experiencing writing.

      Just read the poem.. fantastic! I’d never read it. Thanks for linking it 🙂

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