Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, both authors and academics of note in their native countries, spend the book in breezy, gentle dialogue about books, publishing, literature and media. They cover some questions which were new and different, and they cover other questions (such as ‘is the book really dead?’) which have been debated elsewhere, but seldom by two such educated, erudite bibliophiles.
One thing I liked about the dialogue is that Eco and Carrière have seen enough and know enough to debate the issues with clarity. There is no emotional ‘but I love the smell of paper!’ here. These guys both know we’ve been down this road before. In one section, Eco compares a crumbling but beloved old favorite he wore out while writing his thesis to an early manuscript of his famous novel which was lost forever to a floppy disk he can’t access on his modern computer. It’s not about the superiority of paper over pixel, whether one is bad and one is good and so on. When they speak of the fire that destroyed the library of author Octavio Paz (one of many library fires in a long history of library fires through the ages, they note), the issue was not ‘books were lost and that is inherently sad because they were books.’ It was ‘books were lost for which this guy had the only copy.’ If they had been papyrus scrolls or hard drives or cuneiform tablets, it would have been just as sad.
These guys are coming from the background of trained historians here. When Carrière started his career in film 50 years ago, the medium of film itself was 50 years old. Some of the works he studied as seminal examples are no longer studied and their directors no longer revered. For these two historians, it’s natural for things to come and go. And it’s not just storage mediums either—it’s form, too. That’s the way it’s always been. Will Twitter novels be a different animal than the epic fiction of, say, Jonathan Franzen? Sure they will.
Nobody is beating down the doors these days for ‘comedy of manners’ stories about lady chambermaids, are they? Yet there was a time and place—and a robust industry—for those. France was very into poetry for awhile. There was a golden age. And then, as Carrière points out, there was about 200 years where all the poems were crap. ‘Believe me, I have looked,’ he assures Eco. ‘There was nothing worth saving.’ So, if you’re going to sad about ‘the internet ruining books’ then you should be just as sad that the war destroyed the lady chambermaid industry, and any interest whatsoever in books about them.
Eco and Carrière are also refreshing in their ability to welcome and embrace new technology, rather than fear it as many of the ‘old guard’ literary critics (Harold Bloom comes to mind) seem to. They see the benefit of the Internet for storing and archiving facts we still value, but don’t necessarily need to keep in our heads all the time. ‘Do we really need to know the names of every Soldier at the Battle of Waterloo?’ they ask in one chapter. But at the same time, they acknowledge that the free-for-all we have now is not a perfect system either. They theorize that the occupation of fact-checker might be the next big profession, where certified experts can vet the contents of Web pages on a given subject and give a source of information their seal of approval.
My one disappointment with this interesting, compelling book? Eco and Carrière make me feel a little bit inadequate. They seem to know about everything! One of them will say something about, say, Baroque poets, and the other will chime in with something like ‘of course, you make a good point about that. Now, consider what the So and Sos were doing in Germany at that same time.’ And the first one will return with ‘well yes, sure, we all know about them, but how about Mr. Obscuro author, who drew on the same source material as the So-and-Sos but was working in Venice at the time?’
I consider myself fairly well-educated and well-read in the history of literature, but these two name-drop like nobody’s business, and seem to know everything about everyone! It made the central arguments of the book stronger because they have the historian’s eye for recognizing that none of this is quite as ‘New Business’ as people might think it is, and that it’s a straighter line than people might realize from the traveling book suitcases the Victorians used to the flash drives we use today. But it also left this reader feeling just a little stupid.
Overall, a great book! Anyone who is serious about learning about this topic, and not just mouthing off about it, should give it a read.
* * *