February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco has died at the age of 84. The author, best known for his 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, once described his library to the Paris Review, revealing the habit of mind that made him a genius: “I own a total of about fifty thousand books. But as a rare books collector I am fascinated by the human propensity for deviating thought. So I collect books about subjects in which I don’t believe, like kabbalah, alchemy, magic, invented languages. Books that lie, albeit unwittingly. I have Ptolemy, not Galileo, because Galileo told the truth. I prefer lunatic science.” Eco had a favorite branch of lunatic science—list making, the subject of his 2009 book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. This encyclopedic tour of Western civilization was also an investigation into how we try to tame the universe (and our own spiraling thoughts), and face our mortality, as Eco put it: “How, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. . . . We like lists because we don’t want to die.” He was deeply interested in language, telling Minna Proctor in a 2002 Bookforum interview: “I wrote a book about the search for the perfect language. I examined all the attempts throughout history to create perfect languages. My paternoster is a combination of real paternosters in several universal languages from the last three or four centuries, including Esperanto, plus, if I remember correctly, a piece from Gulliver’s Travels.” It makes sense, then, that he was also a fierce defender of free speech in Italy: “Imagine a United States where Bush owns the New York Times, theWashington Post, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, CBS, ABC, plus Hollywood, too. Wouldn’t this monopolistic concentration concern American citizens? You’re upset by the mere fact that Bill Gates runs Windows and Internet Explorer. Well, that’s our situation.” For more wise words from Eco, listen to his 2005 interview on Bookworm, and watch this charming video, “Advice to the Young,” filmed last year: “Don’t pretend immediately to receive the Nobel Prize.”  

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