Umberto Eco on the Future of the Book
By Maria Popova
“Reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised,” Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska observed in her beautiful meditation on why we read. “The more the need for entertainment and mainstream education can be met by new inventions,” Hermann Hesse asserted a generation earlier, “the more the book will recover its dignity and authority.” But today, more than half a century later, what remains of the book’s dignity and authority as techno-dystopians spell its demise and techno-fetishists squeeze it of life in their ceaseless efforts to “improve” it beyond recognition?
That’s what the late, great Italian novelist, essayist, philosopher, and semiotician Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932–February 19, 2016) examines in This Is Not the End of the Book (public library) — the record of his lengthy and wonderfully wide-ranging conversation with French novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière about the future of the book and its perennial rewards as a medium of irreplaceable humanity.
Eco peers into the past in order to discern the future:
One of two things will happen: 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 of 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. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. When designers try to improve something like the corkscrew, their success is very limited; most of their “improvements” don’t even work. Philippe Starck attempted an innovative lemon-squeezer; his version was very handsome, but it lets the pits through. The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.
Eco considers why books were born in the first place and what makes them singularly enduring in the human experience:
We can think of writing as an extension of the hand, and therefore as almost biological. It is the communication tool most closely linked to the body. Once invented, it could never be given up… Our modern inventions — cinema, radio, Internet — are not biological.
With an eye to the perishability of new media formats, which become obsolete within a generation or two, Eco adds:
Wanting to choose something easily transportable and that has shown itself equal to the ravages of time, I choose the book.
Complement This Is Not the End of the Book with Eco’s advice to writers, his counterintuitive notion of the “antilibrary,” and his wonderful vintage semiotic children’s books, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on why we read and write.
Published February 22, 2016