Published on Monday 13 June 2011 12:42

This Is Not The End Of The Book by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, Translated by Polly McLean Harvill Secker, 320pp, £14.99

“Let us pose ourselves a classic dilemma.The world is under threat and we can only safeguard a few cultural objects. Civilization might be wiped out, perhaps by a massive environmental catastrophe. We have to act fast. We cannot protect or save everything. So what would we choose? And in which media?”

Distinguished screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere is in a gripping conversation with one of the most famous intellectuals, Umberto Eco.

“Why run the risk of choosing objects that may become mute and indecipherable? Wanting to choose something easily transportable and that has shown itself equal to the ravages of time, I choose the book”. Eco replies immediately.

This delightful conversation curated by Jean-Philipp De Tonnac further matures, straddling wide range of thoughts, ideas, cultures, practices and personal anecdotes, opening a window to a fresh knowledge about books. Both are out-and-out bibliophiles, serious collectors. Towards the end, they get round to comparing sizes. Umberto has 50,000 books in his various homes, plus 1,200 rare titles, while Jean-Claude owns up to 30,000-40,000, of which 2,000 are ancient. There’s lots of burbling about bindings and provenance and how best to arrange one’s library.

This Is Not The End Of The Book is a book about the nature of the book itself. Eco, one of the major voices in Italy’s national conversations impassion us of  diverse qualities of books as a representational medium as compared to modern storage devices. The formats of new media have so far proved ephemeral – floppy discs, videotapes and CD-ROMs have already been superseded, leaving the material supposedly preserved on them increasingly hard to retrieve. Books have proved more durable. “We can still read a text printed five centuries ago. The book is like the wheel. Once invented it cannot be bettered”. Eco claims. The question whether the book will survive the e-book era has become highly relevant in today’s milieu of digital revolution. However Carriere opines that permanent eclipse of the book is out of the question. He stresses on the insecurity of modern storage devices of the likes of DVDs. You lose electricity and you lose everything forever. Even if the visual and sound recording of the twentieth century are wiped out by a gigantic electricity failure we will always have the books. Carriere argues. While discussing the greatness of books people often tend to extol its physical qualities. Eco is attached to the old book, he says; different colours, annotations and faded edges. Conversely De Tonnac doubts whether such emotional bonds for books are merely old-fashioned habits. This Is Not The End Of The Book goes beyond just being conversation between two great men of letters. Rather, it is a peep into the enthralling world of books—its origin, evolution from incunabula, Roman Volumni, to Papyrus scrolls and the present thought-of  struggle of survival. “I collect books on wrong, Zany, Occult sciences as well as imaginary languages. I am fascinated by error, bad faith and idiocy”. Eco reveals.”A Collection dedicated to the occult and mistaken sciences”. Eco and Carriere have an enchanting chat on the idea of stupidity which unfolds in the chapter titled ‘In praise of stupidity’. The history of beauty and intelligence on which the education concentrates or rather on which others have decided education should concentrate is only a tiny part of human activity. Perhaps one should ever consider compiling a general history of mistakes and absurdities as well as ugliness. “The education system only cares to teach and transmit the truth, Stupidity is filtered out”. Eco and Carriere blame our system pretty convincingly.

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

sociocultural politics behind published books and those ill-fated majorities of books that never see the light of the day are examined closely in the process of the conversation with interesting anecdotes.  Accidental and intentional fires have been part of book history since the very beginning. “I sometimes wonder what the Nazis were thinking when they burned Jewish books. Were they hoping to destroy them all, right down to the last one?” Through the revealing words of Eco and Carriere we get a whole new idea about books—an entirely different perspective. Every time a culture is under threat, we have a propensity to safeguard historical documents and other representational objects. At this time, books are prioritized on cultural importance. All those ‘culturally mistaken’ texts may be left behind or destroyed. Thus what we have today is the filtered mass of books that were ‘culturally correct’ for few.

Jean-Claude Carriere

Jean-Claude Carriere

Forgetfulness is the biggest curse on humanity. The ‘Best faithful’ function of books according to De Tonnac is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy. Thus history becomes important. Representation of times becomes even more important so that our future generations abstain from repeating the mistakes already made by our predecessors.

In short, This Is Not The End Of The Book is an insightful piece of work suggestive of new perspectives on the book in a relaxed chit-chat format. Towards the end of the book the reader will consciously or sub-consciously come to terms with the unparalleled supremacy of the book as the ultimate storage system. Long live the book!