Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist, essayist, and semiotician passed away in February 2016. With his death, the world lost an intellectual rock star who was as comfortable discussing books as he was exploring the paradoxical immateriality of our culture.
Chronicles of a Liquid Society is Umberto Eco’s last book and can be said to be born out of his intellectual appetite and conviviality. It’s a curative compilation of the essays he wrote for the L’Espresso – a weekly magazine that he had been writing for since 1985 until his death in 2016.
Eco explains Liquid Society as a collective embodiment of unbridled individualism and conspicuous consumerism. In case it intrigues you, the phrase and the idea of liquid society borrows from the maverick Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman‘s book State of Crisis.
Chronicles of a Liquid Society includes Eco’s opinions about a range of subjects. From cell phones to women philosophers to Festschrift to stupidity to unread books to Miss World and even James Bond’s shaken-not-stirred martini, it covers a broad gamut of topics.
What I liked about the book
The best part is that he treats all subjects with equal respect. It’s as if no subject was rarefied or tabloid type for him. It is this aspect of his writing that makes this collection so much fun to read.
Those well-versed with Umberto Eco’s work would know that he did not believe in mincing words. He always spoke his mind. And, in doing so, he often spliced together stylish narrative with his penchant for biting satire. This book is no different.
Take, for example, his observation about the US gun lobby. Every time there is a shooting incident, he notes, a US senator comes out and says,“It’s not about possessing guns but using them properly.“ Eco in his typical fashion, then, juxtaposes,“As though shooting to kill were not a proper use of arms.” Such moments are ample in this book and the reader gets many opportunities to giggle at his timing of black humor.
Eco was not a tech geek, but he liked technology and all its trappings. However, as someone with high critical faculties, he used to often drive the attention of his readers to the grey areas of technology.
Here’s Eco on why he felt a little chasm keeps education from becoming fully compatible with the Internet:
“The Internet provides a fantastic store of information but offers no filters, whereas education is about not only transmitting information but also teaching the criteria for selecting it.”Umberto Eco, 2004
He was on the money with his argument. Even until this day, the Internet does not tell us how to filter, accept or reject a piece of information.
While most essays in the book have undertones of philosophy, some have deep societal relevance and ask thought-provoking questions.
In one of the essays, he talks about a country’s desire for heroes and how this notion is based on fallacy. He interjects that the country that needs heroes can’t be happy. Why? Because this want means that the country lacks people who do their duty honestly, responsibly and with professionalism.
Umberto Eco was also a great proponent of paper books. I won’t say he despised the electronic format, but, it’s just that he was a believer in the survivability of the book. After all, incunabula from 15th century have survived till this day. In a later essay, he shares why his defense of the book stands out:
“Though I have all of Don Quixote in my electronic memory, I would not be able to read it by candlelight, in a hammock, on a boat, in the bath, or on a swing whereas I can read a book in the most adverse conditions.”Umberto Eco, 2009
What I didn’t like
The downside of writing occasional pieces, no matter how entertaining at the time of writing they are, is that at some stage they become dated. This the case with Chronicles of a Liquid Society, too.
There are a few essays that have become a part of a much broader historical context. Reading them might cause some readers a tinge of discontent. Included among them are the Gulf war, 9/11, George Bush’s malapropisms and Charlie Hebdo incident.
Eco was a stimulating writer, an energetic raconteur with a great sense of humour. Even at the age of 83, he showed no sign of faltering in his rapacious intellectual appetite. If you have a penchant for scrumptious, vivid and meticulous writing, laced with dark humor and satire, then, you must partake of Eco’s swansong.
A close acquaintance on social media questioned my decision to read Chronicles of a Liquid Society. It was not on any bestseller list. I was immediately reminded of a repartee that Eco once used to silence a critic. “The question is not how many copies you sell immediately, but how many readers you have 20 years after.”