A truly remarkable read. A treat for bibliophiles.
‘This is not the end of the book’ dwells on the past, the present and the future of the book as we know it. Jean Phillippe de Tonnac, the famous French novelist, facilitates a freewheeling chat between two bibliophiles: Umberto Eco, the late Italian literary maestro and Jean-Claude Carrière, the legendary French writer and academy award honoree.
I am not sure how many books about the love of books have been written. But, whatever that number, ‘This is not the end of the book’ will feature right up there on that list.
Both Eco and Carrière are deft craftsmen of sweeping tours of history and also of intensely personal human narratives. Where does their knowledge stem from? Their huge book-collection, obviously.
As of the printing of this book, Eco owned over 50,000 books in his personal library and Carrière had 30,000. Both bibliophiles as reported had particular tastes for human folly. Eco’s collection comprised books on fakery and human error while Carrière boasted of his own dictionary on stupidity.
During the course of the book, both Eco and Carrière engage in erudite and memorable conversations. They address important questions every book-lover has. They talk about books and the threats to their existence in the past and in the future. Though the discussions, by no means, remain limited to challenges. I have listed down some of the key topics and salient inputs of authors for everyone’s benefit, you may enjoy them:
1. On threats from digitisation: Both Eco and Carrière acknowledge the impending threat of digitisation to the future of the physical book. They are, however, confident that books will continue to thrive and survive. They have, for centuries.
When quizzed about the change in the physiognomy of books, Eco quips, “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”
2. On memory. Eco and Carrière arrive at the conclusion that though it’s not possible to retain everything in your brains yet knowing a few things by heart gives you a certain intellectual freedom.
Eco emphasizes, “One way to stave off Alzheimer’s or senile dementia of any kind, is to keep learning.”
3. On filtering. Both scholars acknowledge the power of the Internet as a great filter of information. Eco cautions about the inaccuracies and lack of hierarchy concerning information available on the net.
Carrière takes a dip into the history and explains that an era’s culture acts as a filter, too. Some art forms get a boost during a particular era whereas others totally vanish. He adds, “France’s most glorious period (the late 17th and 18th centuries) was the one in which she deprived herself of poetry.”
4. On Book Collectors. Anyone who has built their personal library will attest to the labour of love that goes into it. Each personal library is peculiar – a reflection of our tastes. Eco and Carrière unearth a host of probable reasons why a collector gravitates to this or that book.
About their own libraries, Eco reveals his weird affection for esoteric and bizarre literature. Carrière, on the other hand, comes across as a bibliophile who would collect books that conflict each other. Here’s Carrière on his bibliophilic romance, “My favourite thing in a library is juxtaposition: different books clashing with and contradicting each other.”
5. On our Knowledge of the past. Not all books written in the middle ages were enlightening and insightful. A good bunch was useless drivel.
Throughout the book, Eco and Carrière discuss several such publications. Imagine a book about why Germans used to defecate more than the French making it to a bookshelf in modern times.
6. On censorship. The go-to weapon of the most marauders and the dissenters in the middle ages was arson. God knows how many precious books were lost to the fire and how many cultures or their remnants were obliterated.
Carrière argues that Mongols and Spanish were the worst book-destroyers. Fire, however, it appears was not the only option available at their disposal. Umberto Eco mentions another censorship device: a statewide injunction called damnatio memoriae practised in Rome. Poor souls who were slapped with this decree had their names wiped out from virtually every record.
We might be safe from the marauders in the modern times, but an accidental fire and theft are always a threat. If you own a huge collection, it’s advisable to have an insurance in place. Moral policing over literature also continues, though they don’t burn the books anymore. Thanks to the internet, you can’t obliterate a good piece of work today.
7. On the books, we haven’t read. Most book-lovers have books in their collection which they haven’t read, but still, talk about them like they have. I remember I ordered Benjamin Graham’s ‘Security Analysis’ in hardcover with full fervour. And for reasons difficult to fathom, I never got around to reading it. But I have discussed the book in many forums without any hesitation.
Eco says he owns three editions of Mahabharata but has failed to read a single one of them. Carrière sheds light on an astonishing study commissioned at Bibliotheque Nationale in France. It was discovered that more than two million of the library’s books hadn’t been requested even once since the 1820s.
8. On religion of the book. In a later chapter, both Eco and Carrière describe their first experiences with books. A kind of induction into the religion of the book. Eco, in his own words, started with adventure stories whereas Carrière with sacred books.
What really surprised me though was Carrière’s insights into Hinduism and ancient Indian sacred texts. His understanding of the Vedas and the Mahabharata is astonishing. He stresses that the Mahabharata is the first written work. Before the Mahabharata, men or the gods hadn’t yet invented writing.
9. On your bibliophilic legacy. What would happen to my collection of books when I die? This is one question that has crossed every bibliophile’s mind, everywhere. Some will have thought about the answer already and some won’t like to go that way right now. You know, scared of thinking about death and other such axiomatic matters. Anyways, Carrière declares, “In my will, I shall probably leave particular books to particular friends. A kind of posthumous present. So that they don’t forget me entirely.”
Eco seems more unhesitating in his answer. He says, “I wouldn’t want my collection to be dispersed. My family would give it to a public library or an auction house so that it reaches a university intact.”
I found ‘This is not the end of the book’ to be a remarkable read. It’s a book with the potential of setting your spirits free. It’s loaded with philosophical and factual gems. The facilitator asks all the relevant questions of the two authors. Eco and Carrière’s answers veer off the topics mostly, but, that only strengthens the narrative. They start from point A, hop over to Z, and then, traverse all the way back to A.
The narrative is not quite a breeze, but the deep wisdom exhibited by the two erudite scholars is sufficient to captivate any reader. I highly recommend this book to all book-lovers. It’s a sui generis feast for the mind.