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Umberto Eco: 1932-2016

It is often humorously observed at retirement parties that few people have been heard to gasp weakly to their assembled loved ones on their deathbeds the words “I wish I’d put in more time at work.”

Death can sometimes come as a blessing or relief but more often I suppose it arrives as a rude early interruption, like a taxi ordered for eight fifteen arriving at half seven when you haven’t even shaved.

For some of us the annoyance is tied to a feeling of things left undone and for literary people this can often takes the form of books not read – books which of course, given just another year, or another couple of years, or another decade, we certainly would have read. The screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (he worked on most of Buñuel’s later films) expresses this as “[t]he terrible grief of the dying as they realise their last hour is upon them and they still haven’t read Proust”.

The observation comes in the middle of a conversation with Umberto Eco, who now really has read his last, in a collection of dialogues between the two men (“curated” by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac) published by Vintage Books in 2011 as This is not the end of the book. Eco and Carrière are riffing on the theme of unread books. They reference Pierre Bayard’s clever but rather meretricious bestseller How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (I reviewed this for The Irish Times when it appeared in translation, in 2009 I think, and, yes, I did read it).



Eco is sensible about all this. Who, he asks, has ever read The Thousand and One Nights in its entirety? Who has ever read the Bible, from Genesis to the Apocalypse? He reckons he may have read a third of it over his long and studious life. Soon, of course, it will be possible, if it is not already, to provoke an embarrassed silence by asking a group of students “Has anyone here ever read anything in the Bible?”

There are several ways, Eco remarks, of responding to the person who visits your house, notices the impressive array of books on your shelves and asks “Tell me this, have you read them all?”

Personally I’ve two replies. The first: “No. These are just the books I’m planning to read next week. The ones I’ve already read are at the university.” The second: “I haven’t read any of these books. Why would I keep them otherwise?” There are of course more contentious responses, if you’re willing to further antagonise and even anger your guest. The truth is that we all own dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands (in the case of an extensive library) of books that we haven’t read.

These are clever responses to a question that, if not naive, is perhaps somewhat vulgar or intrusive. But they do betoken a certain unease and defensiveness.

When people ask me if I’ve read this or that book, I’ve found that a safe answer is “You know I don’t read, I write.” That shuts them up. Although some of the questions come up time and time again. “Have you read Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair?” I ended up giving in and trying to read it, on three different occasions. But I found it terribly dull. [It’s a wonderfully entertaining novel – drb.]

The most delicious expression in fiction of our worries about reading and the extent of our literary culture comes in the opening chapter of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979). A character – the character is named “you” – walks into a bookshop with the intention of buying the latest novel by Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller.

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, The Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
   the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
   the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
   the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
   the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,    
   the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,     
   the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,    
   the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

As I move shortly into a new period of my working life in which I hope to have more time for specific projects involving reading, and even perhaps time for some purposeless but pleasant dipping into this, that and the other, I find that I have for some months now been buying significantly more books. “That’s for after March,” I say to myself, or “Should be able to polish that off in a few days some time over the summer.” I picked up six or seven titles over a weekend in Paris a fortnight ago (French books are both beautifully made and, mostly, cheap). And among them were the first two volumes of Proust’s À La Recherche de Temps Perdu. When I emptied my suitcase I put one of them on top of the pile (piles, really) beside my armchair. And there it sits: Du côté de chez Swann. And there, probably, it will sit until I decide it’s gone time to tidy the place up a little and put Proust, along with some other hopefuls who haven’t really made it, back on the shelves. Mind you I finished Simenon’s La Patience de Maigret in two days.

20/2/2016