Italo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler:

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place you encounter always the same density of material to be told. – p.109

Right before I wrote this passage down, I flipped through the little notebook where I write down particularly resonant passages from whatever I’m reading, and the one just before this one is from Virginia Woolf: “When one so exposes [the genius and integrity of a great novel] and sees it come to life, one exclaims in rapture, ‘But this is what I have always felt and known and desired!'” That’s somewhat how I feel about the Calvino quote. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is that draws me to certain books (or movies, even–throughout this post when I write “read,” I also mean “watch a movie” or “watch a TV show”).

A few people I know have recently stopped watching Lost because not much is happening…this was particuarly leveled at the recent Hurley-cenric episode, which the person I was speaking with thought was superfluous, because essentially nothing happened to advance the plot. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed the Hurley episode, and am more interested in Lost right now that I have been for a while. (I’ll admit that part of my love for that particular episode was the resemblence it bore to “Normal Again,” one of my favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, in which Buffy gets injected with a drug which makes her think she’s actually in a mental institution, and the whole vampire slaying thing and all her friends, her entire world in fact, are hallucinations…and the episode leaves the possibility open that the mental institution reality is actually the correct one.)

Back to the point. The Calvino passage points a little bit to why that I liked the Hurley episode despite the fact that, admittedly, the plot wasn’t furthered really at all. I’ve known for a long time that I don’t read primarily for the event…in fact, I care so little for the actual outcome of novels that I can reread mysteries because I will completely forget who committed the crime. I read more for the characters, but even that’s not completely it. Then I thought, well, maybe I read for the world that the author creates. This is much closer to the truth, and explains why I enjoy books like Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next series so much, despite the undistinguished characters and gaping plotholes. Yet it isn’t a sense of “place” that I want, because as C.S. Lewis points out in An Experiment in Criticism, some books that I quite enjoy, like The Three Musketeers, have almost no sense of place. We know it’s set in the court of France and a little bit in England only because the narrator tells us so, not because the physical setting invades the prose, as does Crime and Punishment‘s Petersburg or Faulkner’s South.

But Calvino has just nailed pretty much on the head what most makes me enjoy a book (or movie or TV show): the sense that the characters and the world have many more stories that they could tell. The world of Lost will always be rich because there is more to it than just the island; there’s more to find out than just what happens next in real time; there are all the back stories of each character and how they intersect (or do they intersect? Are the stories we see reliable?), there are the stories of The Others, who they are and were and what they want, the story of the island itself and the Dharma Initiative. I don’t want to rush along the main plotline, because I want to hear as many of these other stories as I can, and yet always know that there are even more that I will never hear. I want to find out what happens to the survivors, but ultimately I like the process of finding out more than actually finding out. (Back to the rereading mysteries thing: I love the detecting work and the process of solving the mystery, but the resolution is almost always a letdown.)

Lord of the Rings is perhaps the best example of a detailed world. Even without knowing that Tolkein actually did create and write dozens of other stories and histories of Middle Earth that aren’t told in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the books carry a weightiness that can only be attributed to the density of available stories that may or may not ever be told. That richness is, more than anything else, what will completely entrall me. For the exact opposite of this, try something like Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, which I read this month and has taken its place at the pinnacle of a pantheon I like to call “Worst.Books.Ever.” More on this in my month-end recap, which I’ll post sometime this year. (March’s is almost finished, I swear!) Digital Fortress has characters which interact only with each other. There are no characters introduced AT ALL which are not integral to the plot. The main character mentions several times that she and her fiance were planning to go on a vacation on the Smoky Mountains until work got in the way, but you don’t get any sense that the Smoky Mountains exist outside of her mentioning them–you don’t even feel like she really wants to go there, because she is so focused on her job and the plot at hand that there’s no room in her character for anything else. It’s a sterile environment, with static and confined characters. There are other stories hinted at occasionally…the lawbreaking hacker life of one of the cryptographers, the youth of a bitter young Japanese programmer…but they are only brought up for their immediate relevance to the main plot, and then dropped completely. There’s no sense that anything else ever happened to these people other than what we are told in the book. Not good for me. Not good at all.

Give me depth, give me breadth, give me complexity, give me density, give me imagination, give me richness, give me possibility.