Friday, December 15, 2017

Lit Matters: Umberto Eco and the power of learning

June 23, 2015 by Keagan Hawthorne, contributing writer


“To survive, you must tell stories,” wrote Umberto Eco, an Italian scholar and novelist best known for mind-bending intellectual thrillers like The Name of the Rose.

Eco, born in 1932, is a titan of 20th-century intellectual history and continues to make scholarly contributions to a boggling array of disciplines; his personal library includes some 50,000 volumes.

For Eco, living a scholar’s life is about humility. His books are not a testament to his erudition, but rather to his ignorance. They mostly contain what he does not yet know but hopes to learn. And learning is always an active pursuit. “Studying is not simply gathering information, but is the critical elaboration of an experience,” he has said.

Eco cautions us scholars living in the digital age about the dangers of passive information consumption. Reflexively bookmarking webpages and hoarding unread pdfs, we run the risk of suffering what he calls “a vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information” in which we collect facts without gaining knowledge.

The physical labour involved in looking through a real book may still have some intrinsic value. Unlike the internet, Eco believes that “books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”

Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, is all about the strange power of books and what they contain. It’s an intellectual thriller about the power of ideas as much as it is a 14th-century murder-mystery set in a Benedictine monastery.

But the novel is not some esoteric scholarly tomb: it’s full of characters and ideas as relevant to the debates of today as it is to the intellectual ferment of medieval Europe.

“Learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do,” says one of his characters, “but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”

Umberto Eco must-read:
The Name of the Rose
(Greater Victoria Public Library: Central Branch, mystery shelf)

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