Umberto Eco On Reading
November 26, 2003 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Why Books Will Always Be With Us... along with almost everything else. Umberto Eco goes all encyclopedic on us (but in a nice way!) summing up (and reopening) the themes of a lifetime of reading, writing and watching. Though I'm sure what he says about the Web and electronic media will be picked to bits here, I'd say that would be a perfect vindication of this extraordinary exercise in common sense. [Via Arts & Letters Daily.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (14 comments total)
JANINE: You're very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
EGON: Print is dead.
JANINE: That's very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I'm too intellectual. But I think reading is a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play racketball. Do you have any hobbies?
EGON: I collect spores, molds and fungus.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:19 AM on November 26, 2003

Until they can make an e-book with that wonderful used/rare bookstore smell, I think books are safe.
posted by Cyrano at 7:24 AM on November 26, 2003

Eco's a god. I wish I could eat his brain, like a cannibal from Borneo, and so incorporate his vast storehouse of knowledge. Except.....I'm a vegetarian.

Oh well. I guess I'll just have to read his books. Maybe if I put them under my pillow at night.......
posted by troutfishing at 7:46 AM on November 26, 2003

I have a recording of my grandfather's voice that I can't play. It's a wire recording -- like open-reel tape only the stuff on the reels is a strand of wire. Recording dates from late Thirties or early Forties. I doubt I could find a functioning player this side of the Smithsonian. And it's only sixty-odd years old. Moral: if you want your deathless prose to be readable in a thousand years, you better be sure it's written on some medium that's human-readable without any technical infrastructure except what we're born with, like eyeballs.
posted by jfuller at 7:46 AM on November 26, 2003

I read in a book somewhere that cannibalizing smart people's brains doesn't make one smarter. For some reason, it just doesn't work that way. However, who is to say one should believe everything one reads, eh?

I have a grandfather who can't play, because he's now a bag of bones in the ground. God bless'm!
posted by ZachsMind at 7:51 AM on November 26, 2003

For jfuller.
posted by rushmc at 7:53 AM on November 26, 2003

As usual Eco is a charming writer and almost always an interesting read ; this time he rediscovers and repeats the obvious (which is sometimes good) and becomes a little too wordy imho (which I no longer like as much as I did )

It is obvious that the object book will not "disappear" because it has not got the same properties of the object electronic book. If object-ebook doesn't have all the desiderable properties of the object-book, then book will not be replaced by ebook because the two don't offer the same set of desiderable properties.

And Eco puts the problem in the egg-chicken-paradox perspective too : one needs a book to learn how to use a computer that is used to read ebook, so "vegetable-paper" books will never disappear.

I argue that one first needs to learn at least the rules of reading and writing, so what must NOT disappear is the living MEMORY of rules of reading and writing ; because you could have one million books of any kind or shape, but they would become useless without at least one living human being capable of teaching such rules, working as a decoder. That's why reading and writing must be taught without the use of a computer, using only plain old surfaces and stylus.

For instance, we wouldn't have decoded the ieroglyphs without Rosetta stone AND without an human being that remembered how to decode ancient greek to modern language ; books are the most powerful instruments helping memory, but without memory they're useless.
posted by elpapacito at 8:01 AM on November 26, 2003

Minor quibble with Eco's opening metaphor in the fpp essay: why doesn't he use the traditional trio animal-vegetable-mineral instead or organic-vegetal-mineral? He wants to draw a line between meat-based memory and plant-based "memory" (i.e.paper). "Organic" fails to exclude vegetable, which is what he wanted to do. It's not a translator's flub; the intro says Eco gave the speech in English.

rushnc: thanks very much for the link!
posted by jfuller at 8:03 AM on November 26, 2003

I had posted the eco piece at my site (my site will remain sightless), and what I most liked about it is the idea that there is you and the book--nothing are in a different world, if fiction, and you away from othter realities or fictions. Somehow other ways of entering different worlds (tv, computers, etc) not the same. At theater, there are those murmering around you, and you see and hear not at your pace and desire but are the "puppets" of the performers...books are good things.
posted by Postroad at 10:04 AM on November 26, 2003

"I read in a book somewhere that cannibalizing smart people's brains doesn't make one smarter." (ZachsMind)

ZachsMind - I know....If it did, I'd stop using big words real quick. I might also take to wearing neck armor too - you would just never know if someone was waiting around a blind corner with an empty stomach and a big pair of head-chopping shears.
posted by troutfishing at 11:34 AM on November 26, 2003

Books store information that can be accessed without the use of an intermediate device.

That remains the single, most important point for continued existence.
posted by linux at 12:52 PM on November 26, 2003

> "I read in a book somewhere that cannibalizing smart
> people's brains doesn't make one smarter." (ZachsMind)

Some years ago there was some experimental evidence that you could teach a lab rat to run a maze, feed its brain to another lab rat, and then the second lab rat would learn the maze faster than the first did. That's not automatically proof of transfer of knowledge through brainburger, however, it's not hard to dream up an alternative (e.g. maze learning consists of new neuron growth in the brain area responsible for spatial memory; maze-running practice causes neurosecretion of a chemical that stimulates new neuron growth in the proper area; eating the brain gives the second rat a fast source if this site-specific growth stimulator, so it doesn't have to crank up its own secretion mechanism the hard, slow way through maze practice.)

I don't recall that alternative explanations were ever eliminated by experiment. Either they lost interest or PETA got on 'em or Igor ran out of fresh rat brains.

As the New Guinea cannibals found out, eating human brains gives you kuru (mad people disease.

Say, is this topic drift? Would UEco be proud of us?

posted by jfuller at 1:24 PM on November 26, 2003

I *heart* books.
posted by The God Complex at 1:58 PM on November 26, 2003

I'm in the middle of cleaning out and moving out of an apartment that suffered a cockroach infestation and I just discovered a now-dead colony in the back of my case full of "books I've read but I'm keeping 'cause I may want to read them again or give them to somebody I like". E-e-e-e-w-w-w-w... Worse than finding bugs in the breakfast cereal. Some of these I will never be able to give to anybody... I like...
posted by wendell at 2:39 PM on November 26, 2003

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