The bookstore in your neighborhood sits on a busy corner. You pass it on your walk to work in the mornings, and on your walk home in the evenings, and although you sometimes admire the clever geometries of its window display, rarely do you take a closer look. But, not long ago, the sight of a particular book made you pause. Your eye lingered on its pure-white cover and on a curious shape cut into it. Without thinking, you walked into the store. The clerk was working at her computer. The other customers were leafing through books lifted from the great pyramids of new releases on the front table. No one paid any attention to you.
You reached for the book you had spotted. The author was Italo Calvino, whose name conjured up some vague impressions—an Italian who had risen to prominence after the Second World War, a writer of stories within stories. With your thumb, you flipped through the first few pages and, with the practiced efficiency of someone who never has enough time, you determined what the book was about. It was a book called “The Castle of Crossed Destinies,” about men and women who, having been mysteriously struck dumb, were using packs of tarot cards to describe the adventures that had befallen them. Or it was a book called “Invisible Cities,” in which the Venetian merchant Marco Polo described to Kublai Khan the far-away lands of his empire, and, as you turned the pages, the spires and domes of unreal cities rose and fell before your eyes. Or it was a book that opened by addressing you, the Reader, instantly transforming you into both a character and the narrator’s confidant: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”
You relaxed. You concentrated. The voices of the other customers grew distant, and, with each sentence of whichever book you had chosen, you plunged deeper into a story of chance encounters, magic objects, lawless crusades, and reckless loves. You discovered that this was a book of rapid cuts and quick dissolves that carried you from one character and setting to the next. At first, you believed you were reading a fable, but it soon turned into a quest, then a romance, then a utopia, with each episode as dramatic as the one that came before it. You felt that you were not reading a book at all but being whirled around a great library of books: here you glimpsed the beginning of one story, there the middle of another. But the end? The end was nowhere in sight.