This Is Not the End of the Bookby Jean-Claude Carriare, Umberto Eco, Jean-Philippe de Tonnac (With)
A book lover today might sometimes feel like the fictional medieval friar William of Baskerville in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, watching the written word become lost to time. In This Is Not the End of the Book, that book’s author, Umberto Eco, and his fellow raconteur Jean-Claude Carriere sit down for a dazzling dialogue about memory and/i>/i>
A book lover today might sometimes feel like the fictional medieval friar William of Baskerville in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, watching the written word become lost to time. In This Is Not the End of the Book, that book’s author, Umberto Eco, and his fellow raconteur Jean-Claude Carriere sit down for a dazzling dialogue about memory and the pitfalls, blanks, omissions, and irredeemable losses of which it is made. Both men collect rare and precious books, and they joyously hold up books as hardy survivors, engaging in a critical, impassioned, and rollicking journey through book history, from papyrus scrolls to the e-book. Along the way, they touch upon science and subjectivity, dialectics and anecdotes, and they wear their immense learning lightly. A smiling tribute to what Marshall McLuhan called the Gutenberg Galaxy, this dialogue will be a delight for all readers and book lovers.
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This Is Not the End of the BookA conversation curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
By JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIÈRE UMBERTO ECO
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe book will never die
Jean-Claude Carrière | At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2008, one of the speakers was a futurologist who argued that four phenomena would drastically change humanity over the next fifteen years. The first was oil at 500 dollars a barrel. The second was that water, like oil, would become a commercial product, and be traded on the Stock Market. The third was the inevitability of Africa becoming an economic power certainly something we would all like to see.
The fourth phenomenon, according to this professional prophet, was the disappearance of the book.
The question is whether the permanent eclipse of the book should it in fact take place would have the same consequences for humanity as the predicted shortage of water, or affordable oil.
Umberto Eco | Will the book disappear as a result of the Internet? I wrote about this at the time by which I mean at a time when the question seemed topical. Now, when I'm asked for my opinion, I simply repeat myself, rewriting the same text. Nobody notices this, firstly because there's nothing more original than what has already been said, and secondly because the public (or the journalistic profession at least) is still obsessed with the idea that the book is about to disappear (or perhaps journalists just think their readers are obsessed); therefore, journalists never tire of asking this same question.
There is actually very little to say on the subject. The Internet has returned us to the alphabet. If we thought we had become a purely visual civilisation, the computer returns us to Gutenberg's galaxy; from now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen. Spend two hours reading a novel on your computer and your eyes turn into tennis balls. At home, I use a pair of Polaroid glasses to protect my eyes from the ill effects of unbroken onscreen reading. And in any case, the computer depends on electricity and cannot be read in a bath, or even lying on your side in bed.
One of two things will happen: either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. When designers try to improve on something like the corkscrew, their success is very limited; most of their 'improvements' don't even work. Philippe Starck attempted an innovative lemon-squeezer; his version may be very handsome, but it lets the pips through. The book has been thoroughly tested, and it's very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.
J.-C. C. | It seems that the latest versions of the e-book have put it in direct competition with the printed book.
U. E. | There's no doubt that a lawyer could take his 25,000 case documents home more easily if they were loaded onto an e-book. In many areas, the electronic book will turn out to be remarkably convenient. But I am still not convinced even with first-rate reading technology that it would be particularly advisable to read War and Peace on an e-book. We shall see. It's certainly true that we won't be able to read our editions of Tolstoy for ever, or indeed any of the books in our collection that are printed on wood pulp, because they are starting to decompose. The Gallimard and Vrin editions from the 1950s are mostly gone already. I can no longer even pick up my copy of Étienne Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, which served me so well when I was writing my thesis. The pages literally fall to pieces. I could of course buy a new edition, but I'm attached to the old one, with its different-coloured annotations telling the story of my different readings.
Jean-Philippe de Tonnac | Why not concede that with the development of new media better and better adapted to the demands of e-reading whether of encyclopaedias or novels there will be a slow loss of interest in the object of the book in its traditional form?
U. E. | Anything might happen. In future books may interest only a handful of ardent enthusiasts, who will satisfy their backward-looking curiosity in museums and libraries.
J.-C. C. | If there are any left.
U. E. | But one can also imagine that the fantastic invention that is the Internet may likewise disappear. Just as airships have disappeared from our skies. The future of the airship collapsed when The Hindenburg caught fire in New York State just before the war. The same goes for Concorde: the Gonesse accident in 2000 was fatal. Now that's a very interesting story. An aeroplane was invented that could cross the Atlantic in three hours instead of eight. Who could argue with such progress? But after the Gonesse disaster, Concorde was deemed too expensive and abandoned. What kind of reason is that? The atomic bomb is very expensive too.
J.-P. DE T. | Hermann Hesse had some interesting things to say about the 're-legitimisation' of the book that he thought would result from technical developments. He was writing in the 1950s: 'The more the need for entertainment and mainstream education can be met by new inventions, the more the book will recover its dignity and authority. We have not yet quite reached the point where young competitors, such as radio, cinema, etc., have taken over functions from the book that it can't afford to lose.'
J.-C. C. | In that regard he wasn't mistaken. Cinema, radio and even television have taken nothing from the book nothing that it couldn't afford to lose.
U. E. | At a certain point in time, man invented the written word. We can think of writing as an extension of the hand, and therefore as almost biological. It is the communication tool most closely linked to the body. Once invented, it could never be given up. As I said about the book, it was like the invention of the wheel. Today's wheels are the same as wheels in prehistoric times. Our modern inventions cinema, radio, Internet are not biological.
J.-C. C. | You're right to draw attention to this: we have never needed to read and write as much as we do today. If you can't read and write, then you can't use a computer. And you have to be able to read and write in a more complex way than ever before, because we have invented new characters and symbols. Our alphabet has expanded. It is becoming harder and harder to learn to read. If our computers were able to transcribe speech with precision, then we would experience a return to oral culture. Which brings us to another question: is it possible to express oneself well if one cannot read or write?
U. E. | Homer, of course, would say yes.
J.-C. C. | But Homer belonged to an oral tradition. He acquired his learning by way of that tradition, before anything in Greece was written down. Can we imagine a contemporary author dictating his novel without writing it down, and knowing nothing of the body of literature that has preceded him? His novel might be charming, naïve, fresh, unusual. But it does seem to me that it would lack what one might, for want of a better word, call culture. Rimbaud wrote his superb poetry when he was very young. But he was far from being an autodidact. At the age of sixteen, he had already benefited from a solid classical education. He could write Latin verse.
Chapter TwoThere is nothing more ephemeral than long-term media formats
J.-P. DE T. | We are pondering the durability of books in an era when the prevailing culture seems to be tending towards other, perhaps more high-performing tools. But what about the media formats that were supposed to provide durable storage for our data and personal memories? I'm thinking of the floppy disks, videotapes and CD-ROMs that we have already left behind.
J.-C. C. | In 1985, the French Culture Minister Jack Lang asked me to set up and run a national cinema and television school, La Fémis. I put together a great technical team under the direction of Jack Gajos, and chaired the organisation from 1986 to 1996. Obviously, for those ten years, I had to be completely up to speed on every innovation in our field.
One of our main challenges was simply showing films to our students. When studying and analysing a film, you have to be able to stop, rewind, pause, and sometimes proceed one shot at a time. With the traditional reel this cannot be done. At the time we had videotapes, but they wore out very quickly and were completely useless after three or four years. It was around that time that the Vidéothèque de Paris was set up to conserve every piece of film and photography about Paris. The Vidéothèque had to choose between archiving these images on videotape or on CD both at the time known as 'long-term media formats'. It chose to invest in video. Other people were trying out floppy disks, which were getting the hard sell. Two or three years later, the CD-ROM appeared in California. At last, we had the answer. We watched demonstration after thrilling demonstration. I remember the first CD-ROM we saw. It was about Egypt. We were staggered, and completely sold on it. We bowed low before this new invention, which seemed to solve all the difficulties we had been struggling with for years. And yet the American factories that used to make those little marvels closed down more than seven years ago.
On the other hand, our mobile phones, iPods, etc. are capable of ever-greater feats. We're told that the Japanese write and publish their novels on them. The Internet has become portable and wireless. There is also the promise of Video on Demand, folding screens and all sorts of other phenomena. Who knows?
It may seem as if I'm talking about things that changed over a very long time-span, a matter of centuries. But all this has taken place in barely twenty years. It doesn't take long to forget. Less and less long, perhaps. These thoughts are probably rather commonplace, but it's important not to throw out commonplace things. At the start of a journey, in any case.
U. E. | A few years ago, a CD-ROM of Jacques-Paul Migne's 221-volume Patrologia Latina was on the market for 50,000 dollars. As a result, only big libraries could buy the Patrologia, not poor scholars (having said that, we medievalists soon started gleefully copying them). These days, all you have to do is subscribe and you can consult the Patrologia online. The same goes for Diderot's Encyclopédie, which was formerly sold by the dictionary publisher Robert on CD-ROM. Today, I can search it online for nothing.
J.-C. C. | When the DVD came on the market, we were sure that we had finally acquired the perfect solution a format that would permanently resolve all our requirements around data storage and group screenings. Until then I had never created a personal film library. When DVDs came along, I was finally sure that I had my 'lasting media format'. How wrong could I be? They are now announcing much smaller disks, which require new players and, like the e-book, can hold a substantial number of films. Even our good old DVDs will be given the push unless we keep the old players that allow us to watch them.
There's actually a trend for collecting things that technology is ruthlessly outdating. A Belgian filmmaker friend of mine keeps eighteen computers in his cellar, just so that he can watch old work. Which goes to show that there is nothing more ephemeral than long-term media formats. Enthusiastic collectors of incunabula, such as you and I, are probably quite tickled by these banal, now rather hackneyed musings on the frailty of contemporary media formats. Look at this. This little incunabulum comes from my bookshelves. It was written in Latin and printed in Paris at the end of the fifteenth century. On the final page the following is printed in French: 'These hours for the use of Rome were completed on the twenty-seventh day of September year one thousand four hundred and ninety-eight for Jean Poitevin, bookseller, of rue Neuve-Notre-Dame, Paris.' Though the word 'use' has been spelled in an old-fashioned way, and this manner of describing the date and year has long been abandoned, we can still decipher the text easily enough. And so we can still read a text printed five centuries ago. But you can no longer read, or rather watch, a video or CD-ROM that is only a few years old. Unless you have space for a lot of old computers in your basement.
J.-P. DE T. | It's important to emphasise the increasing pace with which these new formats are becoming obsolete, forcing us to reorganise our working methods, our back-up systems, the very way we think ...
U. E. | And this increasing speed is contributing to the loss of our cultural heritage. That is definitely one of the thorniest issues of our time. On the one hand, we invent all kinds of tools to preserve our memories, all kinds of recording equipment, and ways in which to transport knowledge. This is certainly major progress in comparison to the days when you had to rely on mnemonics to remember people had to rely on their own memories, because they didn't have everything they needed to know at their fingertips. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that, above and beyond the perishable nature of these tools, which is in itself a problem, we are not even-handed with the cultural objects that we choose to preserve. For example, if you want to buy an original of one of the great comic strips, it is horribly expensive, because they are so rare (these days, a single page of Alex Raymond's work costs a fortune). But why are they so rare? Simply because the newspapers that used to publish them threw the plates in the bin the moment the strip had been printed.
J.-P. DE T. | What were the mnemonics that people used before the invention of artificial memories such as books and hard drives?
J.-C. C. | Take the case of Alexander the Great. He is once again about to make a far-reaching decision, and has been told of a woman who can predict the future with total accuracy. He summons this woman, to teach him her art. She tells him that he must light a big fire and read the future in the smoke from the fire, as from a book. But she gives the warrior one warning. While reading the smoke, he must on no account think of the left eye of a crocodile. The right eye if he must, but never the left.
Alexander gave up on knowing the future. Why? Because as soon as you have been instructed not to think of something, you can think of nothing else. The prohibition becomes an obligation. It is in fact impossible not to think of that crocodile's left eye. The beast's eye has taken over your memory, and your mind.
Sometimes, as in Alexander's case, remembering and not being able to forget is a problem, a tragedy even. Some people have the ability to remember everything, using very simple mnemonics; they are called mnemonists, and have been studied by the Russian neurologist Alexander Luria. Peter Brook based his play I Am a Phenomenon on one of Luria's books. If you tell a mnemonist something, he will be unable to forget it. He is like a perfect but crazed machine, recording everything without discrimination. Which is actually a flaw, rather than a quality.
U. E. | All mnemonic techniques use the image of a city or palace in which each area or place is linked to the thing that must be remembered. In his De oratore, Cicero describes Simonides attending a dinner with many of Greece's senior dignitaries. At a certain point in the evening, Simonides takes a break from the gathering, only for the ceiling to collapse and all the other guests to be killed. Simonides is called in to identify the bodies. He manages to do this by remembering each person's place at the table.
The art of mnemonics is thus to associate spatial imagery with objects or concepts in order to link them. The reason that Alexander can no longer behave freely is that he has linked the crocodile's left eye to the smoke he must read. The memorising arts were still practised in the Middle Ages, but it seems that they were gradually lost with the invention of the printing press. Paradoxically, that was when the great books on mnemonic techniques were published.
Excerpted from This Is Not the End of the Book by JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIÈRE UMBERTO ECO Copyright © 2009 by Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Umberto Eco is an Italian novelist, medievalist, semiotician, philosopher, and literary critic. He is the author of several best-selling novels, including The Name of the Rose(1983), Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), The Island of the Day Before (1995), Baudolino (2001), and The Prague Cemetery (2011). His collections of essays include Travels in Hyperreality (1986), Kant and the Platypus (1999), Serendipities (1998), Five Moral Pieces (2001), and On Literature (2004). He has also written academic texts and children’s books.
Jean-Claude Carriere is one of France’s most distinguished writers. He received the 1972 Prix Goncourt for his novel L’Épervier de Maheux. His other works include the historical drama The Controversy of Valladolid (2005) and the novel Please, Mr. Einstein (2006). With the English director Peter Brook, Carrière adapted the Indian epic poem The Mahabharata for the stage in 1987. Carrière has collaborated with many film directors, including Jacques Tati, Milos Forman, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard. He wrote the screenplays for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), and The Tin Drum (1979), among many others.
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