The Uses of Literature

Readers who mourned the death of Italo Calvino in 1985, just as his novel MR. PALOMAR was appearing in bookstores, will welcome whatever posthumous harvest the next few years bring. This miscellany, however, will appeal chiefly to Calvino completists.

THE USES OF LITERATURE collects thirty-one pieces spanning the years from 1966 to 1982. Although the title page and the dust-jacket blurb call them essays, few of the pieces actually fit that description. There are newspaper articles (several occasioned by the death of a fellow writer), lectures for general audiences, papers given at learned conferences, contributions to symposia (several of the pieces in this category are extremely brief), and prefaces to Italian translations of Voltaire, Honore de Balzac, and others. There is a radio broadcast, and a conflation of two skimpy interviews (together amounting to less than ten pages) concerning science and literature. Each piece is prefaced by a note giving date and origin, but the book lacks an introduction (which might have put the fragments in context) and an index, and both are sorely missed. Finally, many of the pieces are tied to a particular time (several, for example, spin off the mood of the late 1960’s), and the moment for their appearance in book form has long passed.

Still, this is Calvino, and along with the ephemera there are some characteristically provocative pieces -- among them “Why Read the Classics?” and “The Pen in the First Person” (a tribute to artist Saul Steinberg, but much more as well). There is also a significant recurring theme, introduced in the book’s opening entry, “Cybernetics and Ghosts.” The title of this lecture betrays its 1967 date, yet here, well before the era of the ubiquitous personal computer, Calvino was saying: “Shannon, Weiner sic, von Neumann, and Turing have altered our image of our mental processes.” And having made that pronouncement, he did not rest content, like a talk-show prophet; instead, he showed how this new perspective can yield insight: He read folktales and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO with a mind alert to the combinatorial play of the computer.