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4.0 out of 5 stars Two bibliophiles converse on books, 30 Sep 2011
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This review is from: This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe De Tonnac (Hardcover)
What is an incunabulum? I didn't know and prior to reading the book I had the illusion that I am a literate person. I shall provide the answer later along with the number and criteria used by Umberto Eco for collecting his incunabula. Incidentally Jean-Paul Carriere also collects incunabula. The sole aim for the unorthodox introductory paragraph was to whet the appetite of the bibliophile reader.

And now to the review proper which comprise:information about the authors;what the book is primarily not about;what the book is, that is its nature and content;what is the basis for anticipating that the book would be a treat to the bibliophile reader.

Umberto Eco is professor of Semiology, medievalist, theorist, and novelist;Jean-Claude Carriere is a writer, playwright and screenwriter. In the body of the book I learned that he studied history. Intrigued by the fact that he co-authored with Guy Bechtel in the sixties a dictionary of stupidity (Dictionnaire de la betise - since reprinted several times) whom he met in the preparation classes for the Ecole Normale Superieure, I made a Google search and found that he is indeed an alumnus of this prestigious school.

The book is not primarily about a potential threat posed the book by our digitised age because as the authors readily acknowledge the future is unpredictable. The book focuses on the nature of the book itself and as such predominantly on our non digitised past.

To state that every book published to-day is a post-incunabulum is a truism given that 'incunabula' are all the books published between the invention of movable press in mid-fifteenth century and the night of 31st December 1500. The Latin word 'incunabula' refers to the 'cradle' of the history of the printed book. The Gutenberg bible was printed between 1452 and 1455. Umberto Eco possesses about thirty 'incunabula', though they include what are considered the 'essentials'. For instance, the 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili', the 'Nuremberg Chronicle', Ficino's translation of the 'Corpus Hermeticum', the 'Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu Christi' by Umbertino Da Casale (who became one of the characters in his 'Name of the Rose', and so on. His collection is very focused. It is a 'Bibliotheca Semiologica Curiosa Lunatica Magica et Pneumatica', or 'a collection dedicated to the occult and mistaken sciences'. For instance, he has Ptolemy, who was wrong about the movement of the Earth, but not Galileo, who was right.

The reader can trace in the body of the book the circumstances which prompted Jean-Claude Carriere to write his Dictionary of stupidity. In the ensuing I shall only cite a couple of gems I encountered in the chapter 'In praise of stupidity':We are never far from saying something idiotic - as we can see from this comment by Chateaubriand, of all people, talking about Napoleon, whom he did not much like:'He is a great winner of battles, but apart from that, any old general is more capable' or the truly inimitable:During the Restoration, the ultra-conservative Archbishop de Quelen declared from the pulpit of Notre-Dame to an audience of French aristocrats newly returned from abroad, 'Not only was Jesus Christ the son of God, he was of excellent stock on his mother's side.'

Fire has a special place amongst the worst censors in book history.

The Nazi bonfires were intended to destroy 'degenerate' books;naturally in an age of printing it is not possible to destroy all copies, consequently in such an era this act has the character of symbolism.

The Spanish in the New World were actually worse book-destroyers than the Nazis. They systematically destroyed Amerindian pictographs thus depriving us from a deeper insight into their culture.

Thedosious I decreed in 380 that the Christian religion was the single official state religion and in the process there was a systematic destruction of hieroglyphics. It took fourteen centuries to rediscover the key to that language.

But there are recent examples such as the destruction of the Baghdad Library in 2003.

The crusaders destroyed about three million books during their stay in the Holy Land.

Queen Isabel of Castile's advisor Cardinal Jimenez de Cisnera ordered the burning of all books found in Granada in the fifteenth century;half of the Sufi poems of the era burned at that time.

Both authors approach eighty and reveal on the fate of their huge collection of books after their death.

Umberto Eco owns 50,000 books of which 1,200 are rare titles. His wish is for his collection to be acquired by a single owner such as a University;it might be of interest to mention that his best selling book 'The Name of the Rose' was translated in 45 languages.

Jean-Claude Carriere owns 30,000 - 40,000 books of which 2,000 are ancient. He does not aspire to a single owner after his death and the fate of his library will be decided by his wife and daughter who will inherit it.

The erudition, breadth of vision, sophistication, and wit of the authors rendered the book a joy to read.
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Initial post: 27 Jul 2012 16:48:11 BDT
Eyeh Asher says:
I read this interesting review by David Sexton on "The Scotsman" of 19/06/2011 and I think it's very much to the point:

--Who knew they still made them like this? "Leaves from my Library" and "Chats with a Bookman" was one of the great Edwardian genres, countless examples still cluttering up the dimmer second-hand bookshops. Yet here's a brand new addition to this apparently clapped-out form, "a conversation about the past, present and future, curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac", between the celebrated novelist Umberto Eco and the distinguished screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière.

The pair met for "several sessions in their two homes" for a good old chinwag, conducted, one can only hope, over some serious port and walnuts. 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.

In playful mode, they speculate about which book they would rescue if the house were on fire. For Umberto, it's probably Bernhard von Breydenbach's Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam, Spier (1490), for its wonderful illustrated plates on several folded pages; for Jean-Claude, it's "an Alfred Jarry manuscript, as well as one by André Breton, and a book by Lewis Carroll that contains a letter he wrote".

This entire world of bookmanship was best expressed for me in a satirical letter from Philip Larkin to Kingsley Amis (24.9.46): "How refreshing to contrast the organ notes of Milton with the sonorous aphorisms and noble despair of the worthy Sam Johnson! And to weigh the rough stone of Dryden against the ardent ore of Jack Donne? It makes an old 'carl' such as I wish for four eyes, that I could read TWO BOOKS AT ONCE!!!!"

At one point, Eco and Carrière happily agree that having lots of books is beneficial even if you don't read them. "Perhaps you've had an experience like this," suggests Jean-Claude agreeably. "I often walk into one of the rooms where I keep my books simply to look at them, without touching a single one. It feeds me in a way I can't explain."

Umberto can go one better, though. Democratically, he suggests the same kick can be had, even from books you don't own, just by sniffing. "It can happen in a public library, or even a large bookshop. Which of us hasn't drawn sustenance from the simple smell of the books on the shelves, despite them not belonging to us?"

Jean-Philippe de Tonnac has "curated" these blitherings in only the loosest of senses, perhaps cracking the walnuts as well as passing the port, since the book is full of extraordinary howlers.

Drivelling on about Shakespeare, Jean-Claude tells us very few of his plays were published during his lifetime (not true, 18 were) and that it was only a long time after his death (seven years?) "that they were collected together and published in what is now called the Folio and considered the first edition. The holy of holies, naturally. Do any copies of that edition still exist, I wonder?" For a book-lover, even a French one, this is astounding ignorance. (There are 228 First Folios known to be in existence, of which 40 are complete, one having been sold at Sotheby's for £2.5 million as recently as 2006.)

In short, This is Not the End of the Book is a singularly bad piece of book-making. Ironically. Or just pathetically. And that's a pity because the book's main contention is probably valid. 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 cannot be bettered, Eco claims. "The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved."

Aldus Manutius published the first pocket book, an edition of Virgil, in 1501. "As far as I can tell," Eco says again, "a more efficient way of transporting information remains to be found. Even the mega-gigabyte computer still needs to be plugged in." But these days there are computers and e-books that don't need to be plugged in. This is not a closely reasoned argument.

Still, they're right: the book is not dead yet by a long way. But with friends like Umberto and Jean-Claude, books need no enemies. The e-book of this hapless farrago costs, the same as the hardback. Doubtless it'll be discounted soon, and then deleted.
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