Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Going back to the origin of this blog, one of my main goals was to read about places I’ve traveled to. It’s a way to experience a place through a completely different lens. As such, I’ve always had a tendency to favor books about places or people of places. That’s why Invisible Cities stood out to me. I don’t even remember which book referenced it. Was it Flights? Or Story of Your Life and Others? Or maybe even Turn Right at Machu Picchu? But I do remember jotting it down right away. Maybe it’s a testament to how far reaching its ideas are that I can’t even link it to back to a specific reference. This book is about everything and everywhere.

1) “Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter.”

Over and over again, the author gives new perspectives to mundane things.

2) “Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel-driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts.”

My friends and I spend an outsized amount of time talking about where to live. The one clear thread is that grass is greener on the other side, but it really isn’t.

3) “The emperor is he who is a foreigner to each of his subjects.”

Twitter Profile: Father. Husband. Son. Foreigner to my subjects.

4) “If the traveller does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits.”

The whole “it used to be so much better” concept is counterproductive.

5) “From now I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I have conceived them.”

This reminds me of the Caesar games. That was the peak of my urban planning skills.

6) “In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.”

One thing I want to work on is to fight my natural instinct to run away from strangers. Years of stranger-danger training have made me incapable of helping people with directions.

7) “I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others. It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist.”

P(A) = P(1-A)^n.

8) “In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.”

As I read the book, I started mentally constructing each city in my head. I then googled and found that others have had similar ideas. I’d love to go to an Invisible Cities museum.

9) “It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new.”

The amount of trash I generate everyday is staggering, and I basically don’t buy anything except for food.

10) “The world is covered by a sole Trade which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.”

This is how I feel flying domestically in the US.

It took me a bit to get used to the structure and language of this book, but once I did, I really started to appreciate it. There are very few books where I feel my mind horizon permanently expand, and this was definitely one of them. One day, I’d like to draw out some of these cities for fun.

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