I just finished this wonderful book on the train this morning, and I'm still recovering. I added this to the Further Reading section of The List and the Story: 

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I’m tempted to call this thoroughly unique work a list-novel, but then I think it’s better to call it a collection of OCD urban folktales. Gore Vidal said of it, “Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.” Bearing in mind my Sisyphean task, I’ll simply say two things: 1) the basic premise is that the explorer Marco Polo is describing the cities he’s ostensibly visited to the Kublai Khan in the waning days of the latter’s empire, a total of 55 allegorical tales of cities that exist mostly in Polo’s mind, and in all of ours, fragmentary glimpses of cities that any urbanite will recognize in their own; and 2) Calvino arranges the stories with perfect symmetry: 9 sections, each beginning and ending with a conversation between Polo and the Khan and containing either 5 or 10 descriptions of individual cities, and the cities are categorized by topic (Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities, Hidden Cities), five named cities per topic, and arranged in each section in descending order, e.g., Cities and Memory 5 (Maurilia), Cities and Desire 4 (Fedora), Cities and Signs 3 (Zoe), Thin Cities 2 (Zenoba), Trading Cities 1 (Euphemia). The combination of the individual power of each mythic city and the rhythmic presentation of each in the fabric of the book leads the reader (me, at least) into a dream-like openness to the imagined experience of not only traveling to each city, but seeing each city as merely one facet of a larger City. Polo ostensibly saw his own Venice in each, I see my own New York. At one point in their conversations, the Khan tells Polo, “Your cities do not exist. Perhaps they have never existed. It is sure they will never exist again. Why do you amuse yourself with consolatory fables?” And Polo replies, “This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpse, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.”

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AuthorJohn Proctor