Posts Tagged ‘The Book of Imaginary Lands’

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.

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Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014

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I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

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