The strange case of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

Once upon a time, based on the recommendation of my writer friend Jackie Windh, i put the book If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, by Italian writer Italo Calvino, on hold at the Tofino library. It’s a peculiar book, Jackie said — self-referentially a novel that starts off with a musing on the writing and reading of novels, then branches off tangentially (but rationally) with each new chapter into possibly new stories, each never completed.

I knew it would be at the Tofino library because Jackie had just returned it the day before. So i put a hold on it from VIRL’s on-line site, to keep it there. An automatic email arrived shortly from the VIRL system, saying the book was ready for pickup, and a few days later i went in to collect it.

It was nowhere to be found. Not on the hold shelf, where it should have been; not in the stacks, where it might have been misfiled. Linda exhausted the usual possibilities, and then Eileen (it was her first day on the job) went at the cartons of books readied for shipment to other branches, ransacking them for the Calvino book. Couldn’t be found. Disappeared. After half an hour we all had a good laugh, and i shrugged and took something else out. No big deal.

Some time later, curious, i put Calvino on hold again. The book was in the system, and a week later i got the email from the library. This time when i went in, it was there.

Oddball book, indeed, combining the narrative pleasures of the traditional novel with quirky, essay-like musings on the structure, motivations and techniques behind the novel form. I chugged away at it for a while, but only got a third of the way through. Clever though it was, it didn’t really grip me. I have a vague recollection of stuffing it, late one damp night, into the library’s brushed aluminum return slot set into the Legion wall. But it’s not a solid memory; it has the shadowy quality that might come from making it up, or confusing it with one of the many other book-drops i’ve done in similar circumstances.

Normally not a problem, but in this case, when i checked my account on-line a week later, it still showed as checked out. I’d just moved house, so figured it might have been gone AWOL during the move. Ransacked the old place, looked through all the boxes at the new place. Nada. Stalling, i renewed it on-line, thinking it would pop up as i settled into the new abode.

Didn’t. I ‘fessed up to Linda that it might be lost, though i believed i’d actually returned it. She nodded and forced a third renew, to give me time to find it.

But it didn’t appear. Two weeks later i mentioned it to Eileen, who checked the catalogue. It showed the book, she said, as being on the shelves in the Hornby Island branch. She’d send them a message and see if it was, in fact, there.

When i next checked my on-line account, the Calvino book didn’t appear — whew, they’d sorted it out and i wouldn’t have to pay to replace it.

I went into the library a week later for another book. Checking my account, Linda said, “Oh, i see you have an overdue book: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino.” My eyebrows went up. I reminded her of the book’s disappearance from the hold shelf, many weeks ago, and that i thought i’d returned it, and that it had showed on my account as returned — but now i had it out again? We laughed, but I started to get a creepy feeling, as though the novel, written to toy with one’s sensibilities as a reader, was now toying with me as a library user.

Linda hopped onto the library database, verified that the system had just one copy, that it was at present checked out from the Hornby branch, that it had the same bar code as the copy i had taken out. She overrode the checkout on my account.

The case of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller may now be closed. Or maybe not. I never finished the book, and now i’m curious about its apparent strange powers. So i just put it on hold again to see what happens.

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