I just finished reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, a book first published the same year I was born. There’s a blurb by Gore Vidal on that says, “Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.”
He is correct that a typical description of the contents of Calvino’s book is “perfectly irrelevant”. His use of the word “invention” is also interesting and resonates with my own feeling that this book is an Idea Machine.
Marco Polo is telling Kublai Khan of the different cities he has seen. Each chapter in the book is a one or two page description of more than fifty cities. Periodically there are accounts of the dialogue between the Great Khan and Marco Polo. But it is the city descriptions that are most fascinating and beautiful. The mind runs with each brief description and builds whole cities, whole histories out of a couple of pages.
Calvino is one of those writers that “really smart” people talk about. But this is the first of his books I read, and while there is so much depth (and wonderful writing) it doesn’t feel too “heady”. The writing is dense and each sentence is fully packed. But each section is only a page or two, so it comes in nice manageable chunks. I’m going to send this book to my nephew in middle school. I think that if I don’t tell him this is one of those “difficult” books, he’ll really enjoy it.