Traveling Light: Reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities on the Road

business-traveler-at-airportWhen I travel, the one indispensable guidebook I always take with me is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

I’ve carried a copy of this book with me on pretty much every trip I’ve taken as a writer. When I go on trips I always like to have a book with me that I’ve already read and know well. I like to visit new places but I’m not good at the actual traveling part, especially when I travel alone. I get anxious in airports and homesick in hotel rooms. Having a familiar, loved book with me helps keep me connected with the world I’ve left behind.

And this is a slim book — easy to carry. Before the invention of the e-book reader, on which I can stow hundreds of novels that weigh nothing at all, I had to be careful how much reading material I brought with me. (Alas, or maybe fortunately, Invisible Cities isn’t available for my e-reader).

But why this slim little volume in particular? In the novel, Marco Polo has traveled all the way to China from Venice to meet the emperor, Kublai Khan. If Polo was able to make those epic journeys, most on foot (or by horse or camel) I figure I should be able to survive the rigors of modern air travel.

In Calvino’s novel (if it is a novel), the young Venetian describes for the great Khan the wondrous cities he’s visited in his travels. Most of the book consists of these brief, poetic, fantastical descriptions of impossible cities. It was thanks to this book that I conceived the idea of writing a collection of descriptions of imaginary, impossible books, which eventually became my short fiction collection The Logogryph. When I’m traveling in a strange place (or even a place I already know) I like to read the descriptions of magical cities in Calvino’s book and “transpose” them onto the place I’m at, to see how they change and illuminate what I see.

And, lastly, I take Calvino’s book with me on my journeys as a writer because, for me, Calvino is the consummate writer: his inventiveness, his ability to transform the mundane and familiar into the wondrous and strange, is an ideal I strive for in my own work. Having some Calvino with me on a journey reminds me to pay attention and keep my mind open to whatever comes.

I brought a copy of Invisible Cities with me when I went to China in 2002 as a member of a delegation of Canadian writers. The guide assigned to look after us during our stay, the gracious, unflappable, and ever-punctual Mr Niu, had never heard of Calvino or this book (set in a fairy-tale version of his own country). 

When we were at the Ningbo airport, about to head home for Canada, I thought I should give Mr Niu a parting gift, but it was too late to buy anything. Then I remembered he was a writer of travel essays as well as a guide. I gave him my copy of Invisible Cities


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