Posts Tagged ‘On Ugliness’

Farewell, Umberto

February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco was the sort of person who made me feel proud to be a human being, if you can understand what I mean. Like all of us, he had a brain, and powers of reason. And unlike many humans, he used them.

If people know who he was, they probably immediately think, oh yes: The Name of the Rose. It is a lovely novel, one of may all-time favourites, and I say lovely advisedly, for it is so many things: a wonderful detective story which pays tribute to another of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes, a disquisition on mediaeval history, theology, the religious life, human nature – in short, a work which allows Eco the mediaevalist to shine at his best. And Baudolino, his other mediaeval novel which explores the search for Prester John, does the same. His other novels are less impressive, though I have intentions of returning to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I remember as quite autobiographical.

Eco described himself as a philosopher who wrote novels at the weekends. I’ve only dipped into his other work. Some of it, especially more abstruse stuff on semiotics and meaning, has given me a headache and left me none the wiser: I haven’t the tools to access it. Other writings, on languages and translation, I have found fascinating and thought-provoking. And his writings about art, culture and literature, in such books as On Beauty, On Ugliness, The Infinity of Lists and especially The Book of Legendary Lands are works of beauty and great erudition.

So, he was a man of learning, a man who valued learning and knowledge for its own sake, who revelled in it and in sharing it with others. For me, this is one of the greatest things a person can aspire to. When I learned yesterday of the passing of Harper Lee, I was saddened. Opening the paper this morning, I was without words for a long time.

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The Beauty (or not) of Books

November 2, 2014

Although I love reading books, I’m also often conscious of them as objects in themselves, and sometimes the physical book itself adds to the pleasure of reading, somehow.

Most paperbacks nowadays are banal, nondescript, the products of corporate marketing and design. Penguins used to be easily and unmistakably identifiable as such, with colour-coded spines and covers, and fonts that were part of that design; early Penguins with the single-colour cover and the white band with the title are classics that are a pleasure to look at as well as read. The French still do this marvellously with some publishers issuing first editions of new novels in a plain (no illustration!) cover and standard fonts giving author and title; I’ve no idea why this decades-old presentation has survived, but it looks good. I remember when the French paperback collection Folio was launched about forty years ago: they still use the same white cover, same font, although there has always been an illustration of some kind taking up part of the front cover. Again, I think it looks good; it has evolved into a classic.

Hardbacks are a different prospect. Occasionally I come across a beautifully produced hardback title in the UK: I’m thinking of books like Umberto Eco’s On Beauty, On Ugliness, and The Book of Imaginary Lands. The paper is good quality, the colour printing is clear, the binding is stitched and sturdy: I love having one of these open to read. Most hardbacks nowadays are manufactured down to a (high) price here, printed on poor quality paper and bound with glue, so that they don’t open and lie flat properly; I have no idea how long the binding glue will last before it crumbles. Often US editions are better made and worth buying in preference.

Why am I bothered? Because, with hindsight, some of the books I bought long ago and have loved, cherished and re-read many times, have not stood the test of time, and, quite frankly, I think they should be capable of outlasting me. If all I require of a book is to sit on a shelf, and have its pages turned every five or ten years, then it shouldn’t self-destruct after thirty years.

My favourites are probably the Everyman’s Library hardbacks in their new incarnation: cloth binding and sewn pages, decent quality paper (though some of my older volumes are, to my disappointment, slightly foxed now), always a pleasure to read. And the Arden Shakespeare Second Series hardbacks with their blue cloth covers and minimalist dust-jackets: I have now managed to collect the complete set over twenty years or so.

Good books speak to me across time: I get goosebumps looking at ones like Shakespeare’s First Folio or the King James Bible of 1611 in museums. Physical books can and should last: there is something wrong with them becoming transient junk like so many other things nowadays.

On the other hand, as Theodore Sturgeon once said, ninety-five percent of everything is crap.

Umberto Eco: The Book of Legendary Lands

December 23, 2013

513WwIWE0qL._AA160_This was a pre-Christmas treat from me to me – and what a gorgeous book! It’s beautifully produced and matches the other three on my shelf, On Beauty, On Ugliness and The Infinity of Lists. And it’s utterly fascinating, and I read it from cover to cover.

Eco is a mediaevalist, and, as I thought about this, I realised that it was possible for someone of his age to know pretty much everything there was to know from those times, given that knowledge, learning and resources then were rather more limited that nowadays. His encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, history, culture, theology and art really shows. A couple of years ago I read about someone trying to work out how long ago in the past it would have been when someone could have known everything there was to know – perhaps four or five centuries ago, perhaps. And that took me back to Isidore of Seville (now officially patron saint of the internet), who wrote his Etymologies in the seventh century, attempting to codify everything that was known about everything for certain at that time.

People used to believe all sorts of strange things about the parts of the world they had no knowledge of, and it’s when he writes about these imagined lands that Eco is at his most captivating: Atlantis, the unknown southern continent, the lands of Prester John… and their bizarre inhabitants, both animal and ‘human’.  Again, I found myself realising how differently people looked at and thought about their world; in the West, all was considered through the looking glass of religious faith and revelation, giving a view of the world that we find hard to get our minds around today, but then we see the world through scientific and materialist glasses today, and I think I’d argue that that was just as limiting to us today in our exploration of ourselves and out world, as the Christian glasses of the mediaeval epoch.

You can see where much of the inspiration for his fiction has come from, too; I have re-read Baudolino several times (and it’s coming up for another re-read) and still marvel at how Eco has drawn his reader into the world, beliefs and mind-set of his mediaeval characters, who end up seeing all the fantastic creatures that they have been brought to believe in…

Eco also demolishes the Rennes-le-Chateau story, and Dan Brown’s awful novel, in a thorough and masterly way. The whole thing was a fraud from start to finish.

The illustrations in the book are a joy, too. Lots of them, some vaguely familiar, and others totally new to me; strange maps, weird creatures and visions, and I was bought up short again by the question of perspective, or lack of it, in mediaeval art: I cannot believe painters in those times could not see how weird their pictures looked, and cannot see why they couldn’t do perspective properly… which is a limit to my imagination, I suppose.

Anyway, this book was a real joy and I know I shall enjoy it many times more.

Umberto Eco

December 9, 2013

9780631205104I don’t really have heroes, but if I did, I think Umberto Eco would probably be one of them; he’s the kind of person I admire, knowledgeable, catholic in his interests, writing and exploring intelligently and communicating clearly in a wide range of genres – a polymath, I suppose. Ever since I came across The Name of the Rose many years ago, I’ve read and enjoyed, and learnt from, many of his books.

I’ve re-read The Search for the Perfect Language; not an easy read, but a fascinating one, and it has helped clear up for me what I think is Eco’s particular genius as it appeals to me. Everything I’ve read of his seems to show his fascination with how the human mind has changed over time, in the way it thinks and looks at and attempts to make sense of the world. So, for example, his novels in a mediaeval setting, such as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, as well as being entertaining stories, recognise and demonstrate that the people of that time saw the world through very different spectacles from those of our time, and that helps illuminate why we are the way we are now. His works on art, such as On Beauty and On Ugliness show how those concepts have changed and developed over time: what the Romans found beautiful, for instance, is not the same as what a twenty-first century observer might judge beautiful. And in the book I’ve been reading, he looks at language over time: how the understanding of the workings of language, and the science of etymology, has developed through the ages.

So, we are no longer preoccupied with such questions as ‘What language did God use when he said “Let there be light!”?’, or the language he used to talk with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or how Adam managed to name all the creatures that God brought to him to name (and how did he manage with the fish?) – questions which preoccupied earlier minds as they strove to rediscover the original language, which must have been perfect, of course, and have existed before the Tower of Babel…

These questions led learned men into horrendously complex attempts to codify language and speech and develop codes that, while they might have been perfect languages, would have been of almost no real use to the world, and unexpectedly led them towards structured approaches to translation, that actually overlap with how computer translation works nowadays…

Eco demonstrates how people went around in circles chasing something that was not practical or achievable, and then stopped as they gradually realised that language was constantly evolving and changing in everyday use, which implied that perfection could not be attained… I think. As I said, it was complicated. But I enjoyed it, and it got me thinking.

And… why is the alphabet in the order that it actually is?

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