This synopsis will contain spoilers!
The narrator speaks directly to the reader, describing how he is about to begin reading If on a winter’s night a traveler, going into detail on the environment the reader is in. The narrator then describes the events surrounding the purchase of the book, the store, the other books that could have been purchased instead. Finally, the reader begins to read If on a winter’s night a traveler.
The Book (I will refer to the actual book being read with a capital B, while the books within the book will be signified with the lowercase b) then transitions to the book the reader purchased, If on a winter’s night a traveler. However, just as the story begins to get interesting, it cuts back to the reader, who discovers that the book is simply the first 17 pages, reprinted over and over again. He decides to return to the bookstore the next day.
At the shop, he meets another reader (the Other Reader), a young woman who encountered the same issue. The shopkeeper explains all his copies are afflicted, and it is an issue with the publisher. The Reader and the Other Reader decide to get another book, that is written by the author who used a pseudonym to write If….
The Book continues on, alternating between chapters that consist of books being read by the Reader and the Other Reader, and discussing the Reader and the Other Reader as they attempt to discover the truth behind both the mis-printed novels, the mysterious translator who wrote them, and those who published them. Each book they read is cut off for various reasons at a moment of climax within their unique stories.
Eventually, in an attempt to find each of the books that he was unable to finish through the Book, the Reader finds that their titles compose a single sentence: “If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave – What story down there awaits its end? – he asks, anxious to hear the story” (252).