I had never heard of Italo Calvino before, and now he’s everywhere. It’s starting to make me suspicious. Why is he following me?
Our first meeting
I’m in my favorite bookstore on Bleecker Street, bookbook. It’s the one with a table outside offering engineered serendipity at a discount. Inside, asking for a book recommendation from the person behind the register can be like asking the sommelier about a wine. “I like Borges. Do you have anything like that?”
“Try this,” he said, and handed me If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.
I’m heading out to meet my daughter for lunch at Buvette on Grove St. I’m late and have to pick a book to throw into my backpack. (“Always bring a book” is a rule of mine.) I consider a few options and bring the Calvino since it’s compact.
The place is crowded so we eat at the bar, and before the food comes the person next to me places a book on the counter. I do a cartoonish double-take. It’s If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I notice it’s a much older edition, meaning she probably didn’t get it from the same bookstore.
I can’t help but mention the coincidence to her. Like a good New Yorker, she’s unimpressed. “I couldn’t get into it,” she says, “so I’m giving it to my friend.”
Now I must read the book, and I find it is indeed like Borges. “Not one novel, but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense…a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct.”
A few days go by. As I scan my Twitter feed, I see Italo Calvino is there too.
And again a few days later.
In the car
When I’m driving by myself, I usually listen to TED talks or simply try to be quiet and enjoy the drive. This time, for some reason, I switched on the radio. Selected Shorts was playing on National Public Radio, a show where they read short stories aloud in front of a live audience.
“Our first story tonight is Italo Calvino's “The Distance of the Moon” read by Liev Schreiber." My mouth drops. I listen to the story in full, hanging on each word. It is in the collection of stories that I just bought.
A conspiracy of attention
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the author is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity 30 years after his death. Or perhaps the universe is trying to introduce me to Italian fiction.
More likely, though, is that I’m simply tuned in to what has always been there. Maybe my one choice in the bookstore that day simply made me aware of things I was blind to before.
Of the eleven million data points our brains can take in at any moment, we’re conscious of only forty. But which forty? Deciding what we pay attention to can shape our entire world view. It can decide which doors are open to us and which doors we never see.