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.