‘The book is like a spoon’ – This is not the end of the book by Umberto Eco & Jean-Claude Carriere

Bottom-left on the reverse of This is not the end of the book is a little icon signifying that an electronic copy is available online. Presumably everything printed by the big publishing houses is similarly stamped these days, but it would have been nice, a classy aesthetic gesture, an appropriate nod to the content, if Vintage had just for this one volume abstained on the e-companion. Let’s be honest: reading this – a dialogue between Italian novelist, semiotician, essayist, medievalist, bibliophile, etc. etc., Umberto Eco and his friend, French film-man Jean-Claude Carriere, about the intrinsic and glorious value of the physical book form past, present and future – on a screen would be somewhat distracting. Or feel downright insulting and futile, given the repeated exaltation of all things incunabula, book-binding, papyrus, marginalia, libraries and ancient scrolls within. And the general near-sexual air of bibliophilia that wafts out with every page turned. ‘Spend two hours reading a novel on your computer,’ Eco says, ‘and your eyes turn into tennis balls.’ For him, the book is like the spoon: once invented, it cannot be bettered. You’d have to be sort of depraved to read this on a Kindle. A tech-geek with a bitten apple inked onto the nape of your neck and a tendency to get excited when microchips learn to do yet another thing very efficiently that we’ve been doing just fine for many hundreds of years. You’d probably own a self-turning spaghetti fork. The most fun you’d ever have with your Kindle was that thrilling first evening when you downloaded and organised several thousand classics into virtual categories, meanwhile dreaming vaguely of the day you’d finally have them all finished. Or just one. A chapter. The first ten pages?

You’d be depraved, in other words, inversely to how Eco and Carriere are depraved when it comes to paper copy. These guys are mad on books. Quite literally. They admit to owning many thousands more volumes than they could ever read or have use for. There’s a particularly discomforting section in their conversation – at which point I imagine they were whispering, leaning in close to one another – where they let slip their various collector-fantasies. Eco dreams of finding a sick old woman, paying her a couple of hundred grand for the Gutenberg Bible he’d have by then realized that she’s got in her possession, and jealously keeping it locked away somewhere secret and public (so as to avoid thievery). But then – mid-daydream – he realizes, ‘you aren’t able to get up in the middle of the night and stroke it. So what is the point of having your very own Gutenberg Bible?’ ‘Exactly,’ Carriere responds, before sharing his own fancy: ‘I am a thief, and I sneak into a private house that contains a magnificent collection of ancient books. I’ve brought a bag, but it will only hold ten books… I have ten or twelve minutes in which to choose, as the alarm system may already have alerted the police… I love that scenario. Violating the private, protected space of a collector whom I imagine rich, paradoxically ignorant and definitely unpleasant.’ Phwoar. Yeah. Scenario. Must remember that one…

Although these moments are (at least in part) (I hope) tongue-in-cheek, the real book-devotion of this extended dialogue’s two participants is phenomenal. Eco has 50,000 ‘modern’ and 1,200 ‘rare’ titles stored in his various homes. Carriere has 40,000 and 2,000 respectively. They both describe long, expensive, worldwide attempts to hunt down this or that almost extinct/verily obscure tome; if, as in my case, you don’t know the definition of an ‘incunabulum’ before you pick up this book, you’ll soon be so familiar with the look and feel of the word that you’ll want to include it in everyday conversations (difficult: ‘extant copies of books produced in the earliest stages (before 1501) of printing from moveable type’). Which brings me to a key point. Despite the swashbuckling resolve of the title, and the digi-bashing blurb that seems to promise some new, non-web-based-thus-more-intellectually-sound perspectives on the future of books as we know them, Eco and Carriere are utterly uninterested in talking about the slow-burning e-reader revolution of our age. Maybe this is refreshing. In particular the news we had this week about Waterstones and Amazon joining forces has set off an enormous amount of blogospheric and 140-character and newspaper reaction. The endemic short-termism of commentary on current affairs can be a drag. But just as long as you don’t come to this book expecting a serious consideration of e-reading technology c. 2012 and where it’s going and what this means for the glued bundles of paper we’re so attached to having on our shelves – because it really isn’t that.

TINTEOTB was first published in France in 2009, at which time Kindle was yet to make an impact on international markets. Hence Eco’s odd-looking complaint here that you cannot read an e-book ‘on your side in bed’; technology moves faster than we can comprehend, and maybe that’s another good reason for these guys to focus on panoramic views of distant history and future, rather than the untrustworthy present. It certainly allows for engrossing debates on the self-effacing traces of information technology – Carriere points out that the collective human memory stored on floppy discs is now accessible only by specialists or those who’ve kept hold of old computers – and what this will mean for the future (there’s a lot of fun had with the idea of a grand-scale electricity wipeout, and the probable subsequent dissolution of civilization). The format – a straightforwardly transcribed conversation between the two men-of-art, mediated by a third party – allows for digression aplenty, including many diverting anecdotes and post-brandy dinner party musings (is there a way to warn future non-human life forms about the nuclear waste we’re burying? Is writing a biological extension of the human body? What do we do with all the millions of books that have never once been requested from our great libraries? How many unknown-of ancient masterpieces have we lost to fire or pure human stupidity? And so on…). Nick Harkaway wrote that reading these guys’ exchanges is the next best thing to sitting in on them in Eco’s living room. And that’s about right. Their frames-of-reference are extraordinary. The whole tone is warm and avuncular and high-brow; the digressions and angles are fresh, far from the often perpetually clichéd and fatigued stuff about books that you read from people who haven’t bothered to really think about it. Because that’s one thing that really comes across about Eco and Carriere: they really think about this stuff. They really care. That’s why they spend their money on collecting old books, that’s why they write. Perhaps in our ultra-late-post-post-late-modern world, such bookish types will gradually disappear along with the paperbound detritus they fetishize. Who knows. What seems important to me is the sense of perspective that reading has given them. It can be argued either way, but let’s say, for example, that the digitisation of the majority of books sold and read is an inevitability. Somewhere down the line, a generation of children will grow up reading on screens. It will come quite naturally to them. Hard copies will seem cumbersome and unnecessary, and the nostalgia of their grandparents for the olden days of bookshops and the like will seem as silly as nostalgia for vinyl LPs does to most today. The worry therefore should be about the quality of the words, not the medium. So long as we’re gaining perspectives as engaging and undimmed and downright vital as those gleaned from books by Eco and Carriere and offered in TINTEOTB, then we’ll be alright. Kindle or no Kindle.

That said… Going back to Harkaway’s living room discussion analogy, this book does come replete with all the falldowns of keeping polite intellectual society on a Saturday night. If you were actually there, it’s unlikely that you’d let Carriere talk for so long about his beloved twelfth-century Persian poets, for example. It’s not that you’re not interested in this stuff. But you can only take so much discussion of a topic with which you are utterly unfamiliar and seem unlikely to become so in the near future. You’d interject; subtly, without hurting feelings, you’d steer the conversation back to some more common ground. But you cannot. You’re a dinner party hostage, warned not to speak. You can guiltily skip pages, yes, but then the fear is that you’ll miss some brilliant little aside or reference. So the digressions that are often so interesting here are also sometimes borderline-tedious. You also notice the bad habits of the speakers. Carriere, who starts sentences thusly rather too often: ‘When I was working with Buñuel…’; Eco, who enjoys illustrating arguments with examples from his own novels (‘… which reminds me of a scene I wrote for The Name of the Rose…’). The major problem being not that these habits are annoying, but that you can’t join in and indulge your own.

The book is split into outrageously-titled segments (‘It took chickens almost a century to learn not to cross the road’; ‘Do we need to know the name of every soldier at the Battle of Waterloo?’; ‘Our knowledge of the past comes from halfwits, fools and people with a grudge’) in which a particular aspect of the book form is discussed. The dialogic, oral dynamic ensures that, most of the time, things do stay quite lively and interesting. This book is a joy to pick up for half an hour at a time. It is soul-soothing and each session leaves you with a set of things to think about. It is not gripping and the haphazard approach means that there is no logical development from beginning to end. I hesitate to say that this is an ideal Toilet Book but maybe it is. By page 300 I was flagging. A whole series of these books – mediated conversations between two artists on a certain elementary topic, maybe half the length in pages – would make a very distracting Toilet Reading Series for me. It will not go down as a classic, or as required reading, and it does not expect to (doesn’t want to). But if you do choose to have a look at TINTEOTB, I can guarantee this: you will learn lots of very interesting things. You will feel oddly improved. You will also engage with it and become annoyed at certain points. And those are all the makings of a decent book, in my opinion.

Any Cop? At base, a transcribed conversation between two exquisitely and idiosyncratically educated men about books, strange bookish passions, history, the future, religion, writing, and most of the academic and intellectual pursuits in between. Not really a debate about e-readers (for better or worse) or the future of books in our lifetime. More like an Ode to the Book-as-Object. If this sounds fascinating to you, you’ll probably enjoy it.

John Roache

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