This is Not the End of the Book
Umberto Eco & Jean-Claude Carriere
A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
Translated from the French by Polly McLean
Vintage Books, London, 2012
Reviewed by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji
Ultimately, a book is a way of extending conversations across space and time.
This thought came to me when I found myself connecting the fictional incidents set in Graham Greene’s England in the thriller Gun for Sale written in 1946, with the analysis by Ashis Nandy of the effect of colonialism in India, in The Intimate Enemy published in 1983. The situations in Greene’s novel occur almost seven decades ago; and the arguments by Nandy were put forward in print exactly thirty years ago. Yet, in the context of the present state of society in India, they prodded me to look at myself and my larger world with a heightened awareness and understanding. As I found myself confronting and clarifying the ideas put down in two very different ways and in different times and places, I was struck afresh by the efficiency of the book in carrying on simultaneous conversations. After all, the opportunity to personally discuss with Nandy and Greene, the vast range of issues they bring together in their books, is sorely limited – to only those who inhabit their work or living space, and their lifetimes.
So, it seemed entirely appropriate that This is Not the End of the Book – which celebrates the past, present and future of the book – should be in the form of an extended conversation between two writers, Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, skilfully steered by another writer, Jean Phillipe de Tonnac. This book starts with the contentious and continuing question which has been current for at least some decades now: ‘Will the book disappear as a result of the Internet’? The subjectivity of memory; which books should be treasured; the art and artifice of the book; what light books throw on the evolution of human civilization and how they participate in such evolution; what is the ultimate value of a good – and even a bad book; the foibles, fancies and foolishness of some book readers and writers: these, among many other related aspects about what constitutes a book, are discussed here. The chapter titles, which very often consist of a phrase or a sentence that forms part of the ensuing conversation, are as intriguing as they are wide ranging. Beginning from ‘The book will never die’, they cover ground varying from ‘Do we need to know the name of every soldier at the Battle of Waterloo?’ to ‘Fire as Censor’ to ‘All the books we haven’t read’.
Many of the allusions and counter-questions that make up This is Not the End of the Book, arise out of the personal histories of Carriere and Eco, and are informed by their vocations of screenwriter and author, and their intense and extensive interests. The visual as well as the textual, thus, both as a source and medium of information, form part of the conversations. We are let in to these conversations, anecdotal and esoteric by turns, but are also necessarily kept out, because we cannot be so deeply familiar with the philosophical and intellectual content and context of their world. So, the almost forgotten French medieval poets pronounced by Carriere as far more superior than the more popular ones, are equally alien names to some of us. As are Eco’s comments on the Italian poets of his youth or the Greek philosophers of his writings. But then, there are many other parts of this fascinating conversation, on writers, books, images, and objects – Dan Brown, Tutankhamen, Shiva as Nataraja, Mein Kampf, Shakespeare, Fellini, Michelangelo – which are more popular and familiar and therefore more accessible to most readers. This is then as much a book about the language of cinema, television, art and architecture, as it is about writing and reading.
Indeed, this book, while it introduces a reader to the world of books inhabited by Carriere and Eco, also inevitably reawakens personal memories of books. It is as much a discovery of all the books we haven’t read as a revisiting of the books we have. So, I found myself again remembering the time I discovered the magical world of books, soon after my 6th birthday. I had been gifted a whole pile of eclectic titles chosen by my father’s colleagues in the Indian Army. Our Battalion was posted in a field camp site in North India, twenty kilometres away from the nearest big town. The books ranged from Russian publications – one of which was a disquieting tale called ‘Three Fat Men’, in which a boy pops out of a cake as a treat for the three fat men – to ‘Blue Dragon’ and ‘Green Dragon’ Enid Blytons, the designated books for very young and young children. I remember how I sat and began to read one of them, and was utterly fascinated. So much so, that I refused to come and play our favourite game of langdi taang with my brother and the two other little girls, who formed the sole population of young children in the Battalion.
The paradox of the book is then that it allows you to read and exchange thoughts with someone many miles or lifetimes away, at the cost of often sacrificing conversations, observations or interactions in your immediate vicinity. So, a book does as much to unite as to separate. It creates a cult of the learned; a separate superior ‘caste’ of people exclusively privileged to read it. Is it any wonder then that the history of the development of the book, in many parts of the world, owes much to the cloisters of monks, or the protected precincts of priests? And that the library, whether at Nalanda, Takshasila, Alexandria, is such a potent image of the civilized world?
Libraries, especially old libraries, are unlike most bookshops, in that they have very many layers of books acquired over many years. So, you never quite know what you will find. A library to me, and to many others similarly privileged, signifies history, democracy, discovery. I remember the delicious thrill of anticipation I felt, when as an older child in another army cantonment, I made my weekly visit down several winding mountain roads to the Officer’s Library. It had a wonderful collection of all sorts of books, many of which dated from the establishment of the cantonment in British times. Eco’s observation about his books selling the least in England, because the English prefer to borrow from libraries rather than buying books, made me wonder how much my upbringing in the Army, a very British institution, had to do with my love for libraries.
Libraries, like museums perhaps, are a tangible collection of what a culture considers important, what it filters out and what it chooses to retain for future generation. But, who makes these choices, and how equipped are they to do so? How we see ourselves, through the books we treasure or otherwise, is one of the many tantalising questions addressed in This is Not the End of the Book. We, as readers, are changed by the books we read. But books too are changed by the context of the reader, which Eco and Carriere recognise so well. The same book – even the same edition of a book – is read differently by different people. Not just individual interpretations, but also regional and cultural influences inform and intrude upon our readings. This is Not the End of the Book is a very personal examination of the power of the book. It inevitably, will generate very different responses in different individuals reading it.
Amongst the multitude of thoughts it led me to, was the state of reading and the quality of learning in India today. If we survey the ‘liberalised’ India of our times, we find that as bookshops mushroom all over the place, it has become difficult to find good general libraries – even in the national capital region. In fact, specialised libraries are found far more easily here. Even so, despite this difficulty of accessing books easily, ironically the cult of the written word in the recent past and even in the present, is predominant. When Carriere relates how for him, as for Stan Laurel in a Laurel and Hardy film, something must be true since he has read it in a book, it strikes an immediate chord. This is, of course, carried to a different level here, especially in urban political India, so that the expressed view is that it is only those who can read, write and communicate in English, who must be right.
It is difficult to reconcile this idea in a part of the world, which is home to so many languages and to one of the greatest oral cultures. The Vedas, now recognised as the oldest text in the world, were transmitted orally through generations, before being put down as the written word. In ancient India, probably the earliest and most far-reaching civilization of all time, it was oral transmission of knowledge that was the preferred mode of ensuring the dispersal of ideas and history. Traditionally in India, the presence of large and wonderful libraries notwithstanding, the spoken word was always greatly valued. This lends added meaning to Carriere’s observation about the superiority of the practice of community-chanting as a means of learning, transmitting and preserving knowledge, where a word misheard can be instantly corrected, as opposed to the more solitary and individual – and therefore more error-prone – activity of making copies of original texts.
Professional castes of scholars, story-tellers, bards, actors, dancers, priests, older family members, in India have creatively continued conversations heard and handed down through generations – in the form of commentaries or performances based on mythological, religious, spiritual, philosophical and practical lore. Thus, the value of literacy in expressing oneself well, which is one of the questions Eco and Carriere debate, to most Indians till even a few generations ago, would not have the same importance as it does today. Like Homer, who as Eco observes, belonged to an oral tradition, most Indians would have said, that it is certainly possible to express oneself well if one cannot read and write.
Traditional knowledge, anywhere in the world, certainly has a place and a meaning. Anyone who has seen the cult film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, about the gentle Bushmen and the relevance of their value-system and knowledge contrasted with that of the modern mechanised urban world, will understand this well enough. Mainstream thought in India openly ignores and denigrates such wisdom. It terms the adivasis (literally, those dwelling since the beginning of time) or smaller vernacular communities, ‘uncivilized’, and actively disallows ‘non-literate’ peoples any claim to knowledge. Do the recent armed operations of the State against the adivasis imply an assumption that literacy is the only way to knowledge, and literate peoples ought to be the only decision-makers of what is right or wrong? This is a question, that those of us who are much given to reading and writing, and who are in a position to influence through both our writings and our actions, would do well to think about.
It may be worthwhile to remember that both the written and the oral words owe their existence to human beings, and I imagine the responsibility of any truly civilized culture is to ensure that ‘this is not the end of the humane human being.’ There is a story from Indian mythology which talks about the Saraswaths, who consider themselves the highest among the Brahmins. When the Saraswati River was drying up, and there was a great drought throughout most of India, there were no plants and fruits that the Brahmins, the traditional custodians of religion and knowledge, could survive on. Then the river Saraswati told the Brahmins who lived by her banks, to eat fish. That was the only way they would have enough energy to live on, and continue to chant the Vedas. Most of the Brahmins, avowed vegetarians according to their beliefs, refused to do so, and barely managed to live through the great drought. The Saraswaths realised the truth of the advice of the Saraswati, and ate fish, ostensibly a sin at other times. So they managed to retain enough strength to chant and retain the memory of the Vedas. After the drought only they knew the Vedas anymore, and could transmit it to the other Brahmin castes, which is why they were elevated to the highest rank.
Where the weather ensures that nothing endures in its physical form forever; where even the gods are ritually cast on the river and refashioned each year, the obsession that Eco and Carriere have to collect rare and expensive books seems foreign, and the domain of the very affluent. When you are surrounded by people who do not have enough to eat, it seems perverse to spend so much money on collecting ‘things’ – even if they are books – which you then have to spend even greater sums of money to conserve, as Eco and Carriere confess. Is such overriding passion for books, whether in the home or in the library, an excuse for intellectual indulgence in an endless cycle of consumption? As the mania to collect first-editions and signed copies in today’s world shifts focus from the book-lover to the investment-inclined, we realise that books, like art, are no longer just repositories of ideas and imaginings, but objects of display or capital.
Finally, the conversations in this book are about books, between people who read books, collect books, write books, and research on words, images, editions. Any reader and book lover will find much to delight, inform and provoke in such conversations between such people. That does not mean that they will necessarily agree with all of the ideas and thoughts encapsulated in This is Not the End of the Book. But that is really not the point of this book, or any book for that matter. A book begets many ideas. It allows us to see into other people’s minds. We cannot ever perfectly understand their minds, but it brings us a little further in the journey of examining and understanding our own mind.
The world of books document, and should help us all to discover, how different ways of viewing the world and living in it, may be equally valid. At a deeper level, books allow space for different points of view, not necessarily the loudest or the most strident. They signify accommodation, not extermination. Whether or not we collect or covet books, this is why there should not be an end to the book. And this is why This is Not the End of the Book makes for such stimulating reading.