book-reviews

The Uses of Literature

by Italo Calvino (tr. Patrick Creagh)

Rating: ★★★

The only reason I don't rank these essays higher is because several of them were devoted to subjects that blew right by me -- books I've never read, authors I've never heard of (or worse, those whose names are in a notional list of Important Figures Which I Should Read somewhere). Without familiarity with the subjects, the nuanced discussion Calvino brings is largely incomprehensible. Often these are essays intended as introductions to significant texts, or speeches to be delivered at a specialist event, so it is no slight on his writing that it becomes obscure when removed from its necessary context, but it nonetheless meant that I did find several sections dull.

However, my education is not entirely lacking, and there were some topics that Calvino discussed where I could actually follow, and a few biographical pieces which provided sufficient context in themselves to be interesting. Here I was far more impressed. Calvino's essay on The Odysseys within the Odyssey was both amusingly playful and prompted reflection on the surprisingly layered structure of the story. The three essays on Charles Fourier are perhaps the most memorable of the second type, mostly because of the rich explanatory detail Calvino provides, not only about the superficial factual sketch of the man's life and work (itself delightfully bizarre) but also on his effort to dredge out the core of the man's identity. Another good one is the discussion of Pliny the Elder, which moves beyond the notes of amusement to touch upon the themes of scientific method.

Combined with the opening essay, which is a startling display of futurology, this makes for not a bad investment of time at all, and quite possibly one which rewards you the more for coming into it better prepared.