r e c o m m e n d e d  r e a d i n g


Desmond McCarthy once said that good society was an association of people to give each other pleasure, while second-rate society was competitive.




A friend of Archipelago asks Umberto Eco about readers and reading:

TAIJE SILVERMAN: You’ve spoken about a new public that wants to read a higher calibre of literature. How would you define that public, and what do you think brought it about?

UMBERTO ECO: I made a discovery twenty years ago, when I published THE NAME OF THE ROSE. And I always heard the same silly question: ‘Why, when your books are so full of quotations, historical references, and philosophical problems, do you have so many readers? ` And I answer, `I think probably you’re still thinking that readers are stupid.’ Only publishers believe readers want to read trash. The world is full of people who read just to be challenged. To be engaged in an intellectual affair.

I’ll give you an example. When my American publisher first read THE NAME OF THE ROSE, she told me `Oh, I love your book’—she was Serbian-American, but also read and spoke Italian and German...a really great person—’and I want to publish it. But in America, you know, with a book set in the Middle Ages and filled with Latin quotations, we’ll be lucky if we sell 3,000 copies. So if you accept an advance for 3,000 copies`—and that was nothing—`then I will do it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, do it!’ And it was a smash in America. I received a lot of letters—not from people of New York and San Francisco, which are cultivated cities—but from the Midwest, from Texas. Letters from people who were really challenged by this. They didn’t understand everything, but they understood a lot, and they wanted to have a discussion about it.

Obviously we all need very easy reading, like crime novels, in order to sleep in the evening, or to pass an hour on the train. But this is not the norm. And the same person who might want a crime novel to relax a little will, in another moment, want a book that posits problems and questions. There are more of these people than publishers believe. More and more often I find people asking me for a signature. And these people are the gasoline attendant, or the man on the train, or the policeman at the airport. Thirty years ago we believed that these kind of people were not reading books. But something has changed. They read. Obviously, among six billion people living at this moment on the planet, the community of readers is still very small. But it’s bigger than it was fifty years ago. But I shouldn’t make such a statement in this country, because here people used to read a lot more than people in Italy or in other countries did.

You know, there are always journalists asking, what do you think of the death of the book, of the fact that people do not read any longer? But in the cities, bookstores are flourishing. New bookstores, six floors tall, like the Fnac in Paris, or the Feltrinelli bookstores in Italy. And they’re full of young people! I ask myself, where do these people come from? And maybe they don’t buy a book every day but . . .I repeat, among six billion inhabitants of the earth, there are not enough readers. But I am a little more optimistic about it.

TAIJE SILVERMAN: Do you think that with the huge quantity of information that the Internet has made so readily available, we’re going to see a new breed of literature coming into being?

UMBERTO ECO: There are two phenomena. One is the samizdat era. The Internet allows people to put their text on-line without passing through publishers. Which is why we have the crisis of the so-called vanity press ... those publishers who make you pay in order to publish your book. This is a good, democratic event. A young person who wants to make his or her texts known will put them on the Internet. And something can come of it. I know a young friend of mine who put their novel on the Internet, and then a publisher asked to publish it as a book. But this can also create confusion. Because for a young surfer, there are no criteria to decide if that publication is good or bad. In a way, the publishing houses represent a criterion. You think—at least, if the publisher’s not crazy—that there is a selection process involved. I remember reading a cultural magazine in Italy when I was young. The magazine published poems sent by its readers, and those poems were commented on in the magazine. The critics would say, ‘That’s good,’ or, ‘I don’t like it.’ For me, this school of criticism is very important. To learn how to judge a poet. To make up my taste. To say, ‘This is a good verse, this looks very outdated,’ or ‘This is an imitation of a lot of previous poetry.’

With the Internet, the risk is that a young surfer doesn’t know whether what he or she receives is worth something or not. It can create a certain anarchy. But I don’t see this as a tragic problem. There is the possibility of making one’s own work known. My students have a site on which they publish their own papers.

Then there is another phenomenon. It’s the idea that now, with the Internet, there can be a kind of free literature without author, which one person starts and the other continues and it goes on. This is good creative play, but it’s no more than play. I think we need a finished, authored book to confront ourselves with. This authorless Internet literature could be equivalent to a jazz jam session that every night will become a little different…and why not? Provided you don’t say, ‘as so-and-so says…’ But I don’t think the new Internet literature will destroy authorship. It’s the same as saying, ‘If you put your children in a sort of sanatorium, it will destroy fatherhood or motherhood.’ No. We will always need a father or a mother.

TAIJE SILVERMAN: You’re likely in a single paragraph to describe Superman, Santería, California’s wax museums, Communism, and the Middle Ages, and make them all seem effortlessly connected. How do you keep so much information in your head at once? Is your tendency to cross-reference so wildly an intuitive one, or is it more that you are just having fun?

UMBERTO ECO: Well, I know a lot of people who keep more information in their head than me. And live happily forever!

I think the moving element is a curiosity. If you are curious, you absorb what you see and you keep it in your memory. And in learning it, you feel pleasure. Even though it can be tiring. This problem, I know, belongs to the privileged person like me. Many of my fellow human beings work, and then when they are free they cultivate a hobby. For people like me, the job is the hobby. They’re the same thing. So you can work even during the night, and still have fun. I know this is a privilege. A lot of people cannot do it. They are obliged to work, perhaps at an office, making calculations. And then they might read a book.

The other side of the story is that if your job is the same as your hobby, you can, unfortunately, never have the pleasure of sitting down and reading a book. Because even when you read a book, you’re speculating about it as if it were your job. So you lose some of the pleasure which other people might get. But in general, I think, yes: the fact of identifying two sides of your activity is a real fortune.

TAIJE SILVERMAN: Are you constantly making connections between everything?

UMBERTO ECO: [Laughs] No! I spend my time stopping myself from making connections. Trying not to exaggerate.

Taije Silverman is a poet and journalist formerly with the Prague Tribune. She has been published in 64, a magazine published in Virginia, and Ploughshares. She spoke to Umberto Eco in the Prague Castle last Autumn.

Umberto Eco, selected titles:

THE NAME OF THE ROSE (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)






A THEORY OF SEMIOTICS (Indiana University Press)



Feltrinelli Bookshops



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