'...a friend of mine likens his books to a warm fur coat. He feels warmed and sheltered by his books; protected against error, uncertainty and also wintry weather. It is very comforting to be surrounded by all the ideas in the world, all the feelings, all the knowledge and every possible wrong turning. You'll never be cold with your books around you.You will at least be protected against the icy threats of ignorance.
I have been reading This is Not the End of the Book since I returned from the London Book Fair, where you could be forgiven for thinking there are likely to be more books than we will ever see the end of despite the prophets of doom telling us otherwise, and this alongside the inexorable rise and rise of the e reader, and the words Kindle and Kobo floating above the general hubbub with great regularity.
So what might Umberto Eco have to say about it all I wondered, because this book is a conversation between him and the playwright and screenwriter Jean- Claude Carriere, and as the title makes clear it is books that are under scrutiny.
I'll interrupt myself there to ask those of you who have read The Name of the Rose to tell me that I would enjoy it. I love the cover of my edition but for some reason remain terrified of the contents...someone somewhere must have told me it was dense and unfathomable perhaps, but surely nothing denser and more challenging than A.S. Byatt on song, and I've read Ulysses after all so surely I can manage this.
The bookishly erudite conversation between the philosopher and the film maker, from which I will be quoting in quantity because it is full of gems, is divided into topics...
The book will never die...
Books with a will to survive...
Fire as a censor...
All quite straightforward it would seem but then interspersed are these, much more deliciously cryptic..
Our knowledge of the past comes from halfwits, fools and people with a grudge
It took chickens almost a century to elarn not to cross the road..
Do we need to know the name of every soldier at the Battle of Waterloo
The revenge of the filtered-out..
And I will admit a couple of topics that were a bit beyond my interest...
Every book published today is a post-incunabulam
though I am grateful to finally know what incunabula are... all the books published between the invention of printing and the night of December 31st 1500.
There is much discussion about the frailty of contemporary media formats, many of them acutely transient given that if you stored your work on a floppy disk twenty years ago, and failed to transfer it to newer technology, the chances are that you can't read it any more and it is already obsolete.
''We no longer live calmly in the present, but are continually striving to prepare ourselves for the future...'
No such worries about a book, and whilst we invent newer and cleverer ways to preserve memories the pair debate the risk that this may all be contributing to the loss of our cultural heritage unless it is somehow transformed into a book, given that we can still read a text printed five centuries ago.
I was fascinated by the arguments about the seeming arrogance of the new media...
'that proudly considers itself unique... as if it can sweep aside everything that has preceded it, suddenly rendering illiterate and backward anyone who rejects it'
and also Umberto Eco's confession that in the event of an emergency...
'Having spoken so passionately in favour of books, I had better admit that the first thing I would save is my 250-gigabyte hard drive, which contains all my writing from the last thirty years...'
There is much in here about learning and knowledge and the difference between the two, about memory and preservation of data, about history and about navigating the 'stormy sea of information' that we are faced with nowadays... did I read somewhere recently that the average woman holds more information in her head in one day than her grandmother might have heard about and needed to retain in weeks...there is talk of brains sinking into oblivion with overload.
And much about reading too, as the two men discuss their own reading.
I am most certainly not a speed reader and never have been, I just devote an inordinate amount of time to reading what I do, and if anything I may be getting slower given that I like to wring the very last drop out of a book before I write about it, and that can mean creating thinking time as I read. I also maintain a very clear perspective on my reading choices which are always for pleasure, and never from any sense of duty that I write a blog and should be keeping it fed and perhaps can't afford the time out to tackle a chunkster... or that I have to read every book I am sent or I somehow haven't done my duty or fulfilled some unwritten obligation to publishers, or that I have to go with the hype (except when it's Hilary Mantel.) There is discussion about books being like fine wine and improving for being put away for three years before reading... every publicist's worst nightmare I should imagine.
And I loved this from Jean-Claude...
'How can you remember what you've read when you've read two or three books that day...the aim isn't to read at any cost...but to know how to turn the activity into something nourishing and sustainable. Do those who read very fast actually taste what they are reading? '
Nourishing and sustainable... taste what I am reading...yes I love the very thought of that, of books as food for my mind to savour.
Good news about libraries too...
'A great library always remind me of the stratifications of a coal mine - full of fossils, tracks and stories. It's the herbarium of feelings and passions, the jar in which the dried-up fragments of all human societies are stored..'
'...a library is not necessarily made up of books that we've read, or even that we will eventually read. They should be books that we can read. Or that we may read. Even if we never do.'
So, The Name of the Rose...tell me.