In If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino explores the concept of the other reader. This imagined other is pure fantasy, of course. That is the only way they can truly be privy to all the unspoken secrets, pensive scribblings, and cryptic marginalia accumulated while one is reading a text. What else could this other reader be called but a narcissist's delusion? They are, at best, comparable to Pygmalion's statue—formed not just by the kneading of clay or chiseling away marble, but the Lacanian ego ideal: The one we imagine is looking at us, appreciating us, even when we least expect. The book in question then, briefly exists as an imaginary bridge between the two minds—those of your own and the aforementioned other reader. This seems comparable to the palimpsestic collaborations spanning centuries to create both illuminated manuscripts and depictions on cave walls (millennia in the case of the latter). Arguably, it even seems Calvino is suggesting this other person, in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler they take the form of a romantic interest, is the one you are reading the book for in the first place. That any given person's interest in a text is—in some respect—performative. That we all hope to impress this other reader and in turn, wish to be regarded as deserving of their esteemed recognition—that they, in turn, might understand us as no one ever will.
Always while in the act of reading I feel of two minds.
The subject of the other reader is of particular interest to me because I've always read this way—for a secret other. This someone is far too intimate to be a mere friend, and yet, we spend a great deal of time disagreeing—even arguing on occasion—over our respective interpretations of a given text. I would not describe them as so adversarial as to be an enemy, either—more of a desired rival. I understand my admitting this might make my motivations for reading appear shallow, but I do not believe I am unique in the following respect: Always while in the act of reading I feel of two minds. In one, I'm immersed in the story unfolding before my eyes (or in the case of an audiobook, inside my ears). In the other, I'm rehearsing conversations between myself and the hypothetical other reader on any given subject ranging from an author's reoccurring themes, the implications of a story's continuity, or storyteller's intentions regarding the actions of a character. Why not save these thoughts for a conversation involving a real person rather than a mere shadow? Firstly, because I am not so articulate as I imagine myself to be and second, because, over the years, I've gradually become domesticated by suggestions that I stifle my enthusiasms and, in turn, find myself convinced that all the others (the real others in this case, not the imagined one), through the numbing humdrum of the world, have been rendered incapable of appreciating what continues to excite me. I know that this, too, is mere vanity. Still, it is a conceit I cling to, if only because, ever so rarely, I can then be pleasantly surprised by the rare flower of a genuine connection. It happens far more often than I like to expect.
Of course, in all likelihood, these dialogues, existing on a plane between myself and the imaginary one, were never meant to take place and the observations I make regarding a book (even the ones I write now regarding If on a Winter's Night a Traveler) are, at best, prosaic ramblings and, for that reason, will never be shared with those whom they are really intended for—thus creating the necessity of the imaginary other in the first place. Instead I share them with you, dear reader. You become the one with which I tell everything to that would otherwise go to waste. Perhaps that is why I write in the first place—perhaps you were the other reader all along.