Book review: This is Not the End of the Book by Umberto Eco

This book is in bookstores now

“We are living in a changing, moving, renewable, ephemeral world, at exactly the same time that, paradoxically, we’re living longer and longer lives.” Jean-Claude Carrière.

As a publishing student, I’m hugely interested in the format publications take, and where the future will take us. My family got a Windows computer when I was 8, and since then I’ve never been without one around. From that point in 1998, the technology has changed so dramatically, it’s hard for anyone to guess where it’s going to go next. Now take a look at the print book – it has existed, more or less, in some form since the invention of the printing press.

This is Not the End of the Book  is a series of conversations between Italian novelist Umberto Eco (U.E.) and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (J-C.C.), and curated by French writer and editor Jean-Philippe de Tonnac (J-P DE T.). Split in to chapters, the book holds a range of subjects, with the chapter titles being quite fun, from ‘The book will never die’, to ‘In praise of stupidity’ to the much more sentimental ‘What will happen to your book collections when you die?’ Held in their homes, I imagine three older men, sipping whiskey and discussing the finer points in life. And to them, these points are books.

Combined, Eco and Carrière boast a book collection of around 90,000 titles, including over 3,000 rare and ‘ancient’ books. While pangs of jealousy fill my mind, one can’t help but let them boast; they deserved it. And that’s how the rest of book went for me: pangs of jealousy amongst what one could perceive as bragging about amazing lives lived. By lives, I mean theirs, as well as all the others these men are schooled on, from ancient civilisations to their families. On the odd occasion I would read a sentence out to my partner, he would say “I really don’t care, they just sound pretentious and annoying”, or something along those lines. I didn’t see it has pretentious or boastful, I view this book simply as old friends discussing days gone by.

When I say days gone by, I mean way, way gone by. Eco and Carrière cover every era they can talk about, which between them goes from the modern era to Renaissance Italy to the lost library of Alexandria. They talk through the years, reminding people that words have been written on some surface for ages, from rocks to papyrus to Gutenberg with his printing press. They have a very fascinating conversation about ancient civilisations and how, when posed with the threats of other nations, they maintained their culture.

J-C.C. points out, “…All of the great civilisations asked themselves the same question: what to do with a culture under threat? How to save it? And what to save?” With U.E. replying, “…it is easier to save scrolls, codices, incunabula and books rather than sculptures or paintings.” I am always in awe that we know so much about so long ago, thanks to the forward thinking of these people.

Despite their love of the book, both are aware of the changing nature of technology. When thrown the question from J-C.C., “Your house is on fire – what would you save first?” U.E. replies, “…the first thing I would save is my 25-gigabite hard drive, which contains all my writing from the last thirty years.” I have no doubt nowadays everyone would also be grabbing their electronic devices, however U.E. goes on to note if he had time he’d grab his oldest books – naming one from 1490. I think my oldest book dates back to the 1960s…

For those that are worried that the book may die, don’t despair, and for those that really do believe that it will, I truly believe you’re wrong. So do Eco and Carrière; read this book, it reminded me that the book has been around in some format or another for so long, that it will always exist – in some format or another.

“Cinema, radio and even television have taken nothing from the book – nothing that is couldn’t afford to lose.”

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

This is Not the End of the Book
by Umberto Eco
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780099552451