Most of my intellectual heroes are now ghosts; one way to keep them alive is to remember their birthdays. Today marks the natal day of Italian literary treasure Italo Calvino, widely admired writer and journalist who left us groundbreaking works, as the wildly imaginative Invisible Cities, the experimental postmodern novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, the combinatorial machine The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and his unfinished Harvard Norton Lectures Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
During an interview in 1981, Calvino has been asked by the TV host to share "Three keys, three talismans, for the year 2000". His reply is still relevant, resonant, and beautiful:
1. Learn poems by heart. Lots of poems. As kids, as adults, even when you get old. Because poems will keep you company, you can repeat them in your head. Besides, cultivating one's memory is very important.
2. Also, learn to do calculations by hand: divisions, square roots, and other complicated things. Fight the abstraction of language with very precise things.
3. Know that everything we have can be taken away from us, at any moment. Enjoy things, of course, I'm not saying to renounce to anything. But being aware that everything we have can just disappear, in an instant, in a cloud of smoke.
Although the interview is in Italian, you might still enjoy watching Calvino's extraordinary mind operating in real time: his absorbed look and the long pauses make him sound hieratic and oracular.
Happy Birthday to Italo Calvino!
Photo: public domain