by Leora Jasper
Mark Twain famously warned all readers of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to not search his work for motive, moral, or plot; individuals who trespassed into this forbidden literary territory risked prosecution, banishment, and execution, which are punishments I suspect the author Italo Calvino fantasized for his own readers.
Italo Calvino creates the perfect reader in his late work, If on a winter’s night a traveler. The young woman, Ludmilla, is the object of desire, jealousy, and scorn by a number of male authors throughout the text. She is an icon of reading. Authors write of watching Ludmilla or a character modeled after Ludmilla enveloped in reading; they envy the author who composed words to captivate her, and they despair in the knowledge that she does not read their words.
Ludmilla’s sister, on the other hand, is a scientific reader. Lotaria uses computer programs to tell her the frequency of each word used in a given text. This data set, according to Lotaria, reveals the mood and purpose of any text, which provides her with ample fodder for her true interest in reading: analysis. Lotaria sees reading not as a source of entertainment or pleasure, but as an intellectual endeavor to deconstruct the influences of politics and culture.
Lotaria reads — she is literate — but she is not a reader. She does not capitulate to the author’s whims: their sentence constructions, plot devices, word choices, character developments; a book is no more than a car engine or a meticulous blueprint, which is to say a book is no more than how it is socially situated or the implicit, political messages it was designed to serve.
Ludmilla and Lotaria do agree on one thing: the author doesn’t matter. For Lotaria, the author is a socio-political mouthpiece for thoughts determined by institutions, structures, patriarchy, fascism; the author is deluded if they think their words are their own. When Ludmilla meets the writer of one novel in the book, she makes it clear that she doesn’t consider the author the same person as the man she is encountering. Not much can be learned about any author from meeting them; their art requires the distinction between the person who lives every day and the person who writes. For Ludmilla, the book is an act of creation, and the writer must have transcended their own limited capacities to do something so deific; if Lotaria approaches books as science, than Ludmilla approaches them as theology.
I’m guessing, and my best guess is that there are more Lotarias than Ludmillas in 2021; however, I don’t think that guess means much at all because what I really think after I make such a damning guess is something much more damning: most people are neither Lotaria nor Ludmilla. Most people read all the time, but they read decontextualized blurbs, “threads” of frayed and blustering commentary as they scroll. The words most read now are never still, they are ever in motion as a spinning wheel of banal outrage and witticisms. The words read are simply in service of the words that will be written in similar, blunt expressions. No one is reading just to read.
And here I am, critiquing my own act. I am neither Lotaria or Ludmilla. I’m like everyone else.
I need a drink.