Italo Calvino

Collection of Sand

“I finally came round to asking myself what is expressed in that sand of written words which I have strung together throughout my life, that sand that now seems to me to be so far away from the beaches and deserts of living.”

Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923 – September 19, 1985) was a foremost Italian novelist who wrote allegorical fiction and believed literature had a power to transform minds and society.

In Collection of Sand, Calvino throws himself into the world of objects—sand, maps, paintings, gardens, knots—all singular and human-touched. Around, throughout, and apart from these objects, he wanders in search of language, meaning, and a whiff of the infinite.

The relaxing habit of rock collecting. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In the title essay, Calvino considers an anthology of sand as a clue to our nature of collecting and our need for unity in plurality:

There is a person who collects sand. There is a person who travels the world and—on arrival at a sea-shore, the banks of a river or lake, or desert, or wasteland—gathers a handful of sand and takes it away. On returning home, thousands of little jars are waiting, lined up on long shelves […] revealing a uniformity like the moon’s surface despite the differences in granularity and consistency.

In “The Traveller in the Map,” Calvino explores cartography, its universal continuity, and presupposition of narrative:

The need to contain within one image the dimension of time along with that of space is at the origins of cartography. Time as the history of the past: I am thinking of Aztec maps, which are always full of historical and narrative representations […] And time as the future: like the presence of obstacles one will meet on the journey […] like the one drawn up as early as the twelfth century by the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi.

collection of sand
Abraham Ortelius’ Map of Ancient Britain. Copperplate made in 1624. Hand-colored in 19th century. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This need to see a universal concept of humanity in the depths of our creations is perhaps unusual for a man who was raised the son of botanists. But botany is nothing if not a focus on the life of things, the entirety of meaning in an object.

Anna Atkins "Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions" in The Examined Life Library.
Botanist Anna Atkins’ collected seed plants, supplied to botanists at Kew Gardens and donated to the British Museum in 1865. Learn more about Atkins’ love of plants that became the world’s first photographic book. Source: Natural History Museum.

And these essays, mostly written over the few years before he died, gather and crest on this question: What was the point?1

I finally came round to asking myself what is expressed in that sand of written words which I have strung together throughout my life, that sand that now seems to me to be so far away from the beaches and deserts of living. Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.

Reading Collection of Sand is transformative, like walking through a museum of humanity, observing everything with an exclusive cross-textual guide.

I’m fascinated with objects and have often thought the entirety of an object can be divided into two parts: what we made of them, i.e. their presupposed existence, formation, materiality; and—often distinct—what we make of them, i.e. how they are imbued with memory, narrative, and meaning.2

Jars of collected things. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Calvino goes farther. He removes time and material boundaries to see objects as a sort of abstract expression of human meaning. He visits Kyoto, and of the gardens, which would have been quite aesthetically different to his experience, he writes:

There is one thing I seem to be starting to understand here in Kyoto: something I’ve learned through the gardens more than through the temples and palaces. The construction of a nature that can be mastered by the mind so that the mind can, in turn, receive a sense of rhythm and proportion from nature: that is how one could define the intention that has led to the layout of these gardens.

Calvino is the kind of person you want to bring around the world, with his mix of childlike curiosity and wise understanding of the abstract.3

collection of sand
My collection of crushed shells and stones from a New Zealand beach. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

One has the feeling that this set of samples from the universal Waste Land is on the point of revealing something important to us: a description of the world? A collector’s secret diary?

Collection of Sand sheds light on why things are meaningful outside of their purpose. Accompany it with Dani Shapiro’s navigation of personal objects in Still Writing or Penelope Lively’s remembered things that were the foundation of her memoirs.

Calvino’s writing would also make a superb companion to Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, a treatise on how to see beauty differently and how some shape of beauty moves away the pall, lifts our chin to the spectral infinite.