This Is Not the End of the Book
By Jean-Claude Carriere and Umberto Eco. Harvill Secker, 336 pp, hardcover
You don’t have to believe the dubious blurb on the cover of this compact new work to be intrigued. “Two great men discuss our digital future” sounds comically overstuffed, but the fact remains that the speakers in the conversation transcribed here have long and grand résumés, promising unique perspectives on this historic crossroads for books and publishing.
On one side of the table is Umberto Eco, the Italian academic famous for his 1980 medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, and long admired as a thinker who roves from ancient manuscripts to digital networks, at ease with both parchment and silicon.
On the other is the French playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who’s worked with such greats as Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard (and most recently with Michael Haneke, on the chilling 2009 film The White Ribbon). Carrií¨re is, like Eco, a rare-book collector who’s fascinated by the past but free of sentiment about it.
Everything is in place for a brilliant exchange on the role and fate of the book in this wired age. Sparks should fly in all sorts of strange directions.
And sometimes they do—just not nearly often enough. Early on, Eco makes a captivating argument that the book, in its simplicity, is one of our essential inventions, so fully self-contained that it’s beyond technological improvement. “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel,” he declares. “You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon.” Later, in another engaging passage, the two mull over the ways in which books have also been a powerful medium for “human stupidity”, lending false but durable authority to harmful ideas. Scattered throughout are musings on the Internet’s power to undermine such authority, including that of political dictators.
But few of these paths are followed into new territory, even though an awful lot of ground gets covered. There are long detours into the quirks of book collecting and the history of vanity publishing, neither of which is clearly connected to the main theme. Moreover, the pool of knowledge that Eco and Carriere share, although astoundingly broad, gets shallow at the edges. At one point, Carriere solemnly cites Andy Warhol’s idea that everyone in the future will be famous for 15 minutes, as if this still counted as sly insight rather than the commonplace truth it has become in the YouTube era.
Perhaps some of these disappointments stem from a mismatch between content and platform—between the improvised, liquid nature of conversation and a book’s traditional promise of deliberate, carefully engraved thought. Perhaps, ironically, This Is Not the End of the Book would have been better off not as a book at all, but as a series of 15-minute podcasts.