Review: This is Not the End of the Book, by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière

This is Not the End of the Book by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière This is Not the End of the Book is a fascinating and intriguing find that I browsed at the bricks-and-mortar bookstore—and then came home and bought for my Kindle.

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.

Jean-Claude Carrière

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.

Umberto Eco

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.

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12 Comments on Review: This is Not the End of the Book, by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière

  1. Am I the only one to note that Mrs Cabot discovered the book through a brick-and-mortar store, which paid for its physical presence, for the bookstore clerks who looked at the books published and took a chance, which the store accepted in turn.
    I nearly forgot to mention the store pays its taxes.

    And yet, the South American river took the sale.
    No dirty stuff like a physical presence, competent employees, taxes…
    Just a nice cloudy webstore.

    Colour me disappointed.

  2. What about bemoaning that you cannot buy this in the US as an ebook, though you can buy it as a used book; that costs the author and publisher money

    I have no sympathy with the “poor retailer” thingy – like everything they adapt or die as subsidizing inefficient things for the so called common good means ultimately that someone, somewhere (usually the poor who live from day to day) won’t have the choice to buy that less expensive thing at the efficient retailer

    On the other hand leaving money on the table by not selling your book to anyone who wants is stupid; period

  3. I bought it from the Amazon Kindle store, but I am in Canada; it never occurred to me that Americans might not have it available. Dan, can you confirm?

    The ‘poor retailer’ thing is a little funny, because one of the central arguments of the book is that people think because it’s ‘new’ technology, this is somehow a new issue and it’s not. There are thousands of business models—some even publishing-related—that changed drastically over the centuries as politics, technology, economy and so on changed. For instance, both of these authors are collectors of incunabula, which is a term that was unfamiliar to me but which refers to books published before the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. They talk about how these books used to be available, even at fairly reasonable prices, through book dealers and used book shops. But what is happening now is that people like them got in at the ground floor and amassed these collections, and now when they die, the collection will be worth so much more than the sum of its individual parts would be that their heirs will either sell it, intact, to a rich collector or donate it to a museum or library, to which it will enter and then never, ever depart. Eventually, there will be no more supply on the open market because it will all be locked up in libraries or national archives. All those people who made their living buying and selling these books will be out of jobs, and it has nothing to do with the digital revolution whatsoever. Things change. That’s life, that’s history, that is the way it has been for thousands of years. I think both of these authors would tell you that if the retailers can’t survive in today’s evolving society, then they can’t survive and it’s no more sad than any other kind of change might be.

  4. Joanna — I can tell you that it’s not available in the U.S. Kindle or NOOK stores. Odd, huh?

  5. Joanna – Actually, I don’t see it on the Canadian Amazon site either. Did you maybe buy it directly from your Kindle or something?

  6. I have to agree with Le Corback, I was surprised at the cavalier admission, almost pride, that Ms. Cabot would find the book, which she might not of otherwise, (witness how much trouble people are having finding it on their computers in the other comments) in a brick and mortar store and then go buy the ebook. I am not against ebooks but she misses the point that she wouldn’t have discovered this book without her bookstore and the owner or staff who selected it. It seems obvious that one should reward the company that does you the service.

  7. @Billf — You cannot possibly be serious! What you’re saying is that anytime anyone discovers a product at a store—assuming they want to purchase that product—they should never purchase it at any other store, regardless of whether the item in question is available cheaper elsewhere, and regardless of whether it’s offered elsewhere in a format the customer considers more convenient.

    Your reasoning for this is that the customer needs to “reward” the company for offering an item the customer hadn’t yet discovered elsewhere. Seriously?! Why, exactly, should consumers be responsible for “rewarding” stores that offer items for sale? Doesn’t that reward already come in the form of a paycheck?

    Of course, I’m being a bit rhetorical here, because although you didn’t make the distinction, I know you’re not really referring to “all retail stores;” you’re referring to bookstores, because bookstores most likely have a fond and romantic neurological association for you.

    Incidentally, they have the very same association for me: I love them, and I’m sure I always will. I don’t want to see brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear, either. But that doesn’t mean the rules of the supply-and-demand based economy are going to fly out the window. If retail stores can’t offer customers what they want, or if their business models can’t afford to offer customers what they want, they will—and should—go out of business.

  8. This book is available as ebook on Amazon.uk, while on ebook.com it says flatly, “not for sale in your country” which is US, but they allow me to access the preview which is nice

    http://www.ebooks.com/656898/this-is-not-the-end-of-the-book/eco-umberto-carri-re-jean-claude-mclean-polly-trans/

  9. Book discoverability is a complex thing; I mentioned that I saw it at the bookstore because I know we have readers who like to track such trends, but there are also books I find at Goodreads, through Kindle deal of the day sales, through blog reviews, word of mouth and so on. I don’t pay my sister every time she suggests a book to me!

    And bookstore profits are a complex thing too. Le Corback never did ask me what *else* I bought on that bookstore visit :) I go to that store a lot because it’s on my way home and is a pleasant place to pass an hour if I feel so inclined. Sometimes, I just browse and file away for future reference. Sometimes I buy cookbooks or fitness books, which still (to me) look better in paper. Sometimes, all they get out of me is a very over-priced coffee.

    This is, as I said, the very point that the book seems to make. Both Eco and Carriere are devoted bibliophiles who know more about books than probably anyone reading this article, including me. They love books. They love paper books. They love reading. But they are historians too and they know that things come and go, and they evolve and change as part of the course of history. There are dozens of examples in the book of past ‘innovations’ which came and went, which turned into something else, which were sadly lost to war, genocide, political disfavour and so on, and others which were not lost but maybe should have been. What we are seeing today is part of a long and storied chain of ‘evolve and thrive, or don’t evolve and let the market decide.’

  10. One major problem with today’s ebook is that it’s such a restrictive art form. On most ereaders these ebooks all look alike, with the same font, linespacing etc. That’s going to grow tiring and when people get bored, they quit reading.

    Media chatterheads write of their great love for tweaking the font size (bigger or smaller, yawn). I’m no more interested in doing that than in tuning up my car every time I take a trip. I want the publisher to provide a unique and appropriate look, including the right font for the subject. Appearance is as much the publisher’s responsibility as the content is the author’s. And I want the reader to display that publisher’s choices not my own.

    When possible, I want variety in how that text looks, not just screen after screen of all-the-same text. That doesn’t mean I want lots of pictures and multi-media cluttering up the ebooks. I saw that same multi-media fad flare up and fizzle out in the 1980s doing contract work for Microsoft when CDs moved to computers and multi-media was a ‘coming thing.’ Only attention-defective teens want to shift constantly between different media. Most people want to read when they read. Shifting modes is a distraction.

    There is also the hassle factor for the creators. I write and edit books for a living for myself and other publishers. Anything visual is costly, prone to copyright violations (fair use is almost nil), tedious to process, and hard to get right. Got a novel and to dress it up with pictures of the major characters on location? You’re talking about many hundreds of dollars and untold hours even if you get friends (who won’t fit the parts) to fill the roles and many thousands if you use professionals. Most authors and publishers don’t have that kind of money. Most readers don’t expect that anyway. They want to imagine.

    What I’d like as an author is an ebook creation tool that’s a joy to use for the final stages of publication, one that lets me tweak anything and everything easily to get the look attractive. Odd as it sounds, InDesign is that for print books. I wrote most of an over 500-page, complex-formated book in ID. Unfortunately, I’m not yet comfortable that I can do the same with ebooks in ID.

    I’ve downloaded the just-out iBooks Author 2.0, and I’ll be checking it out when I get a chance. The new feature list, including embedded fonts, looks good and I like the idea of being able to issue free updates to readers.

    But I question whether it’ll be a joy to use. The 1.0 version left me feeling that Apple was taking a good idea in one area–making all apps look and feel alike–and imposing it on an area where it made no sense–making all ebooks look and feel alike (or at least compliant with someone else’s template). I’m not really interested in creating ebooks that look like a high-school text from a major publisher. I want to be able to make text look good and not forced to insert images at the start of each chapter under the illusion that pictures alone will make a dull book seem good.

    Like growing numbers of authors, I don’t like a workflow that has Microsoft Word anywhere in the loop. I like to write in tools that ignores the final look (Scrivener or a text editor), so I can focus on content. And I like to do the look in one that shows me precisely what the final result will look like. Inserting Word in the middle is a distraction. So is having to use multiple apps to get the final look for this retailer to that one.

    I also don’t like products that clutter my workflow up with legal restrictions, such as the ban on using iBooks Author’s almost-epub output for any other distributor. That adds many hours to the work I have to do (one version for Apple, another for B&N) without adding a penny to my income. If iBooks Author were a joy to use to write epub books, I’d be delighted to pay a good price for it. The ‘it’s free’ advantage is quickly lost when I have to spend time in other apps for other distributors.

    One final note. In a sense the move from print to digital is creating the same sort of loss as the move from vinyl LP (huge covers) to CDs (small covers) and digital (tiny pictures) did. The covers of LPs were an art form, with almost as much effort devoted to many of them as to the music. That was something listeners appreciated. The same is happening with ebooks. The loss of a physical object is destroying the art that accompanied that object. And I don’t think that’s being corrected by adding a lot of multi-media glitz.

  11. And on the geography issue: there is no Canadian Kindle store. There is just the American Kindle store, with geo-tracking. So, me with my Canadian IP address and Canadian credit card may well see different product choices than an American might on the same amazon.com website. And speaking of sales ‘rewarding’ the store who first led you to discover the book, what about Canadians who can’t buy a Kindle deal of the day so they go buy it at Kobo instead? One of the reasons Kobo was able to become such a player in non-US markets has been because they partner with local chains and promote local content. So…some days, they get my dollar over Amazon because of their Canadian selection. And other days—like the day I bought this book—the very same retail partner who won my business last time loses it today because Amazon had the book I wanted at the right price.

    And of course, I don’t buy paper books unless they have pictures. A plain-text book like this, I would not have bought at the retail store no matter what price it was. I don’t have the space for it. Rewarding the bookstore or not doesn’t factor in.

  12. Jack T. Philbin // October 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm //

    If anyone thinks the knowledge of Messrs. Eco and Carrière is formidable, please check out the works of Christopher Hitchens. His debates on YouTube are phenomenal, while his books (and audio recordings) are a tribute to an intellect the world will certainly miss. His views are contrary to mine; he’s a staunch advocate of atheism. But his logic? Absolutely impeccable!

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