I was in Seattle this past weekend. For the return flight I occupied a middle seat in a very full aircraft. On one side of me was a friendly Iranian woman who kept offering me dried cherries with pits in them. On the other side was a muscular fellow about my age reading a giant hardbound volume titled Modern Reloading, which describes the process of reloading firearms to a degree of detail I would have thought impossible. I felt a little womanish seated beside him fingering my copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
But it was while flying to Seattle, two days before, that an odd conjunction occurred. I had been seated in the terminal at my gate for perhaps a half hour and had just finished a chapter of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I replaced the book in my carry-on and boarded the plane. As soon as we had taken off and reached an altitude sufficient to convince me that the plane really could fly all by itself, I took out my book again and opened it to the next chapter, which was chapter nine. (Now before I quote the passage which so surprised me I should explain that Calvino’s book, a post-modernist classic, is written largely in the second person, which is to say that you, the Reader, are often addressed directly and play an active role in the story – a trick which Calvino manages to pull off fairly well.) This is the first paragraph I read:
You fasten your seatbelt… To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration which is itself a void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you had vanished. Meanwhile, what do you do? How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world, and of the world from you? You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and another, because beyond the page there is the void… You realize that it takes considerable heedlessness to entrust yourself to unsure instruments, handled with approximation. (But are you reflecting on the air journey or on reading?)
I read on with rapt attention, worried. But I was comforted to learn that the flight passes without incident and the Reader’s plane makes a safe landing. And it did.