Thursday, March 21, 2013

That was 'This is Not the End of the Book'

Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere have co-conversed This is Not the End of the Book, curated by Jean-Phillipe de Tonnac (NorthwesternUP, 2011 [translated by Polly McLean]). At 336 pages, it's a long and wide-ranging chat about books--their role in mostly western culture, their significance to the discussants, and the manifold ways in which the book contributes to lives. It isn't, as one might think from the declarative title, a foot-stamping manifesto in support of the, apparently, fading light of the physical book, but it does remind us of the ubiquity of the book; its flexibility of form; readers' relationships with their books; and the technology's dogged persistence in the face of multiple persecutions through the centuries.

For Eco, quite simply, books (or scrolls) are 'the emblem of civilisation' (26) and the containers of collective memory (63). For Carriere, the rapid obsolescence of modern media makes the digital pale in comparison with the longevity and robustness of books (31). With books, through archives and libraries (the library as 'an assurance of learning') (284), information can be filtered, sorted and retrieved (67ff.). Moreover, and significantly, this retrievability means that '[o]ur not set in stone. Nothing is more alive than the past' (85). Carriere regrets the loss of the rough draft, the many visible steps en route to the text's completion--the (paradoxical) emergence of the 'phantom version' in the digital era (117).

And for both Eco and Carriere, it is the dynamism and quickness of the book that registers most strongly: 'A great book is always alive; it grows and ages alongside us without ever dying' (158); each reading of a book is different; each experience with an old favourite changes from the last, as we ourselves change. But some readers, it seems, never change or evolve intellectually. Eco and Carriere admit to a fascination with the idiotic and the false, with the bookburners (245ff) and the censors (207ff). 'Studying stupidity', comments Carriere (216), 'challenges the sanctification of the book, [and] reminds us that we're all constantly in danger of spouting similar nonsense'.

There's no nonsense here. This is a delightful book, replete with fascinating, eclectic, learned and trite facts, experiences and musings. Carriere remembers the impressive missals of childhood church services, where 'Truth came out of a book singing' (294); while Eco, decrying the use of toxic chemicals in removing active bookworms, advises keeping 'an alarm clock in your library. The kind our grandmothers used to have. Apparently the regular tick-tock, and the vibrations it sends through the wood, keep the worms in their hidey-holes' (310).

And if that doesn't make a reader want to read this book--knowing that once it's read it, it will be the End of the Book--I don't know what would.


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