The Written World And The Unwritten World: Essays
“The Written World and the Unwritten World reminds us why we write, why we read, and how that makes us human.”
Who could resist a book with such a title? Certainly not a reader or a writer, those lovers of the written word, especially when the book is a collection of some 30 years of Italo Calvino’s essays, interviews, book reviews, and random notes ranging from an analysis of Arthurian legend to the history of the Italian novel to the jotted outline for a literary journal that (presumably) never came to be.
Calvino was renowned for his curiosity and erudition, which was on full display in his well-loved novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and nearly two dozen other books. So, too, on every page of The Written World and the Unwritten World, whether Calvino is reviewing a physicist’s memoir or musing on the relationship between “artistic theft” and creativity.
But what should be a pleasant but engrossing time with a master storyteller ever focused on that ever-distracted Good Reader is instead rather like crashing a party in a foreign city, where a charming author is midway through a conversation (or argument) with an old friend (or adversary) about left-wing politics and literature, the inherently generative nature of books, why an author writes, and a reader reads. But unlike at a party, where a guest struggling to stay afloat in the flow of ideas can ask a question or two, the reader of The Written World and the Unwritten World must, instead, make due with a translation from Italian to English, and an utter lack of editorial analysis, footnotes, or other historical or literary context (save for a Sources that is little more than a bibliography).
Luckily for the Good Reader, this is a book and not a party, so it can be put down and then returned to again and again. With some patience, the Good Reader can find something new and worthy on each page.
For every chapter bordering on the less than accessible, there are another two (or three or four), where a master storyteller leaves gemstone cairns for his beloved Good Readers on a journey through the woods of human imagination. The trail may be twisted, and the forest shadowed, but Calvino has worn that footpath well, and he understands the importance of its existence.
In the especially beautiful “A Book, Books,” Calvino writes with love of a book’s physicality, but he knows that “books are made to be many,” and that “Our civilization is based on the multiplicity of books; truth is found only if we follow it from the pages of one volume to those of another, like a butterfly with multicolored wings that is nourished on the different languages, on comparisons, on contradictions.”
What would Calvino, who died in 1985, make of the contemporary and too common claim that speech (not just hate speech) can be violence, or that canceling an author’s work isn’t a violation of a writer and a reader’s human right to read, think, learn? For while Calvino disputed that every person’s life contained a book worth writing, he nonetheless wanted “an ideal library that welcomes exemplary models of experience, prototypes, the essential forms from which everything possible can be deduced.”
But why set aside such a place for writers and their readers? For “reading opens spaces for interrogation and meditation and critical examination, in short, of freedom; reading is a relationship with ourselves and not only with the book, with our inner world through the world that the book opens to us.”
Arguably, The Written World and The Unwritten World is a compilation mainly for academics and scholars already familiar with Calvino. But for all of us, and lest we forget, The Written World and the Unwritten World reminds us why we write, why we read, and how that makes us human.