Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Books are not dead

This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe De Tonnac


Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere

Jean-Philippe de Tonnac [Introduction]

Polly McLean [Translator]

ISBN-10: 1846554519
ISBN-13: 978-1846554513

"Open Book: This is Not the End of the Book"


Philip Marchand

July 15th, 2011

National Post

Fear not, bookworms and library rats. Two fellow bibliophiles, novelist (The Name of the Rose) and critic Umberto Eco, and playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, have collaborated on a volume whose title says it all: This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac.

Eco lays out his argument very early in this “conversation.” (Don’t ask me what “curated” means.) “There is actually very little to say on the subject,” Eco states. “The Internet has returned us to the alphabet … From now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen.” The implication of Eco’s logic is clear. E-books have their place in the world of letters, but not necessarily one of total dominance. “One of two things will happen,” Eco continues in his march of logic. “Either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

Now that what little to say on the subject has been said, we can savour what this particular book is really about, the spectacle of two European intellectuals exchanging aperçus. Here are the fruits of a lifetime of reading, stockpiled and readily available to both speakers. At one point, Carriere directs our attention to forgotten French baroque poets. Eco responds with a reference to neglected Italian baroque poets. They move on.

What really drives the conversation, however, is the subject of their book collections. “Not counting my collection of legends and fairy tales, I own perhaps 2,000 ancient books, out of a total of 30,000 or 40,000,” Carriere says. “I have 50,000 books in my various homes,” Eco comments. “I also have 1,200 rare titles.” Both men maintain they are interested in previous owners of their books. “I love owning books that have belonged to others before me,” Carriere says. Eco concurs. “I own some books whose value comes not so much from their content or the rarity of the edition as from the traces left on them by an unknown reader, who has underlined the text, sometimes in different colours, or written notes in the margin.”

Eco’s collection is more focused than Carriere’s. It is a “collection dedicated to the occult and mistaken sciences.” It contains works, for example, by the misinformed astronomer Ptolemy but not by the rightly informed astronomer Galileo. “I am fascinated by error, by bad faith and idiocy,” Eco tells us. He loves the man who wrote a book about the dangers of toothpicks, and another author who produced a volume “about the value of being beaten with a stick, providing a list of famous artists and writers who had benefitted from this practice, from Boileau to Voltaire to Mozart.” He adores the hygienist who recommended, in his treatise, the practice of walking backwards. Eco does not tell us how many of these books he actually owns, or how much he would pay for a first edition in mint condition.

Eco and Carriere exchange insider information about book collecting. You can find the occasional bargain, Eco says. “In America, a book in Latin won’t interest the collectors even if it’s terribly rare, because they don’t read foreign languages, and definitely not Latin.” A Mark Twain first edition is what excites them. De Tonnac asks each man about his dream find. Eco’s response is conventional: “I’d like to dig up and keep, selfishly, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed,” he says. Carriere opts for the discovery of “an unknown Mayan codex.”

A more interesting question, posed by de Tonnac, is whether “an unknown masterpiece might still be discovered.” Eco’s response is similar to the comments of the late critic Hugh Kenner. Kenner pointed out that if a copy of the Iliad turned up for the first time today it would arouse an archeological curiosity but little more. Eco agrees. “A masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece until it is well known and has absorbed all the interpretations to which it has given rise, which in turn make it what it is,” he says. “An unknown masterpiece hasn’t had enough readers, or readings, or interpretations.” Shakespeare, in contrast, is getting richer all the time. Disagreeable though it is to admit this, the anti-Western canon agitators have a point — literary masterpieces don’t simply drop from the heavens, or emerge from the brain of an inspired individual. Fate and politics play their roles.

The conversation in this book is full of interesting and sometimes heartening tidbits. “We are living in the first era in any civilization to have so many bookshops, so many beautiful, light-filled bookshops to wander around in, flicking through books,” Eco assures us. It is also salutary to be reminded that the preservation of cultural memory is an ongoing, urgent task. We assume that the contents of libraries and archives are being digitized, for example, without loss of significant printed material. This is not so. Carriere says that a truck arrives at the National Archives in Paris every day, “to take away a heap of old papers that are to be thrown out.”

Of the two conversationalists, I prefer Eco. Carriere is a little bit too cozy with the eminent. “I sometimes visit second-hand bookshops with my friend, the wonderful author and well-known bookseller Gerard Oberle,” he will state, or he will refer to, “My friend, the great Brazilian collector Jose Mindlin,” or he will find occasion to recall scenes with his good friends Luis Buñuel or Jorge Luis Borges or Jean-Luc Godard. I know it is hard for a top drawer French intellectual to avoid this, and I may simply be jealous. But I also notice that when a banality or an outright piece of misinformation pops up, it always comes from Carriere. You would never have Eco stating, for example, that the Gnostic Gospel According to Thomas is “a verbatim account of the words of Jesus,” or repeating an even hoarier canard, that St. Paul was “the real inventor of Christianity.”

Still, Carriere helps Eco keep the conversational ball in the air and free from any taint of theoretical jargon. Three cheers for these two hardy veterans of the cultural industry.

Thanks to POSP stringer Tim.

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