Will the book be with us forever?

“The speed with which technology reinvents itself has forced us into an unsustainably frequent reorganization of our mental habits . . . and every new piece of technology requires the acquisition of a new system of reflexes, which in turn requires effort on our part, and all of this on a shorter and shorter cycle. It took chickens almost a century to learn not to cross the road. In the end, the species did adapt to the new traffic conditions. But we don’t have that kind of time.” ~ Umberto Eco

Perhaps you remember that a few months ago, I vowed to embrace technology. Like all unions, this one has had its highs and lows. However, my commitment remains strong. And it was during one of my moments of, “I can make this relationship work, damn it,” when I came across a book with this subtitle: Two Great Men Discuss Our Digital Future. Less interested in the Digital Future than the promise of Two Great Men, I picked up the book.

Turns out it’s a conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, and the title is, This is Not the End of the Book.  Perhaps you have heard of Carriere. I hadn’t (he’s a writer, playwright, and screenwriter who has worked with many well-known directors). I was more intrigued with what Eco had to say, as I admit to a love-hate relationship with the man.

The love comes from The Name of the Rose. The hate comes from Foucault’s Pendulum. I reread the first 100 pages four times. Then I threw the book into the ocean and renamed it F#@% U’s Pendulum. (We were camping at Long Beach at the time.) It just seemed so—infuriatingly unreadable.

So I was curious to see if I could understand even a whit of what these two gents had to say. Truth be told, I expected to be aggravated, gritting my teeth while aging academics played semiotic (feel my pain, look it up) tennis.

I’ll admit to times when I felt like an awkward, ignorant guest. When Carriere said, “It’s worth reading Corneille’s Polyeuctus from time to time,” I just winked knowingly and nodded my head. When Eco noted that a story reminded him of “Girolama Libri, a nineteenth-century Florentine Count and great mathematician who became a French citizen,” I said, “Ah, who can forget Libri!”

But, surprise!  I found the book more fascinating than frustrating. The conversation is full of intriguing questions and anecdotes.

They begin their discussion by focusing on the nature of the book. Then they examine the best way to preserve stories—from the oral traditions to traditional books to media formats. How safe are electronic systems? Certainly paper books can be burned by tyrants, but are media formats immune from intentional destruction?

They also examine the “filtering out” process. What is the process that determines what books are preserved? And have the best books been saved? “However determined we are to learn from the past,” says Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in his preface, “our libraries, museums and film archives will only ever contain the works that time has not destroyed. Now more than ever, we realise that culture is made up of what remains after everything else has been forgotten.”

Eco and Carriere then spend quite a few pages “praising stupidity.” Carriere claims that studying human stupidity is much “more fertile, more revealing and in a certain sense more accurate” than studying only masterpieces. Naturally, they share some great stories and even the occasional dry joke (U.E.: Do you know why the Presocratics only wrote fragments?   J.C.: No.   U.E.: Because they lived in ruins. Joking aside, . . .).

This discussion is hardly a straight path. Although the authors begin with digital technology, the conversation meanders through censorship, evolution, religion, poetry, architecture, art, philosophy, violence and film (to name a few). It’s a stunning trip.

It’s clear the authors feel the book will be around for a very long time. But even Umberto can’t know with absolute certainty. He does say, however, that the question reminds him of a time, five or six years ago, when a Milanese book dealer showed him a superb Ptolemy incunabulum . . .

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