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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Has it Changed My Life? Quite Possibly.

So, Calvino's Invisible Cities is our next book.  Period.  I just finished reading it, which reading, as I've said before, was slow and savory, and I'm trying to decide: am I the same person, now that I've finished it, I was before?  Just the fact that the book's brought me to this question is saying a great deal.  Of course, to place it upon the pedestal aside the very few other truly life-changing books, I must compare it to them.  This also raises an interesting question: what is it that makes a book life-changing for its reader?  It's not a particularly difficult question, just interesting.  The answer, I think is simple: it must be a combination of [1] the book's quality (though generally to a lesser degree) and [2] the circumstances of time and place of the reader's life.  As it is, Invisible Cities is of a higher quality than some of the books way up there.  For example, as wonderful as Life of Pi is, it has its [few] limitations, one of which is word craft.  Don't get me wrong.  Martel is an excellent craftsman of the sentence, but Calvino is of the master-smithing status of Borges, Chabon, and McCarthy.  Other books include the obvious tomes of The Divine Comedy and East of Eden/Grapes of Wrath, as well as the Alice books, Ender's Game, Wonder Boys, and Blindness.  Each of these books arrived in my life at key moments, did their business, such as it was, and took up permanent residence upon my bookshelves--literal and metaphysical.  Does Invisible Cities, an essentially perfect book (yeah, really--and not perfect like Joyce, but perfect like, well, Joyce if he had a freaking heart or if Steinbeck could write briefly yet as powerfully), warrant place among the others?

Nearly all of the best books I've read, save All the Pretty Horses, which just bloody tortured me, broke me, heart and spirit, and highlighted in thirty-foot capital, fluorescent letters, "YOU CAN'T WRITE!" inspire me.  You see, I want to be a writer.  Rather, I want to be a successful writer.  I want to be a writer whose stuff people want to read!  The best books nearly always inspire me to write.  They tickle the muses who come and circle me and whisper in my ears and give my fingers and cerebral frontal lobe the itch and make me want to CREATE.  Yeah.  Well, Invisible Cities has done that--and in frickin' spades, man.  The last time I felt the bug this strongly (at least via a book) was when I finished Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North (or however you want to translate it) and subsequently began my own hyohakusha and used the genre and text as model for my creative writing students' end-of-year project.  (My hyohakusha ultimately failed (I'm an inadequate poet), though many of my students wrote and created brilliantly, beautifully.)

Basho was a three years ago.  Since reading it, I've returned to it again and again.  I've studied its poetry and form and in four or five translations.  I've traced his path on maps.  I've referred to and used him as model in poetry and a book of my own.  Has it changed my life?  I dare say it has.  Maybe it just takes time for a book to climb the long stair to the top once it's arrived at--been permitted access to--the base.  If this is the case (and you can't tell right away if it's happened), I expect Basho will soon arrive at the top right along with Steinbeck et al and Calvino will have likely just recently begun the ascent.  Time will tell, I suppose.

Regardless, this book amazed and amazes me.  I am eager to read it again.


  1. I'm getting excited to read this book, but now the expectations are way up. :)

  2. I hope I didn't overstate it. :) It is very much a giant prose-poem, but, at that, the best I've ever read.


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