This Is not the End of the Book Essay

This is Not the End of the Book is the transcription of an extended conversation, “curated” by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. On one side of the table sits Umberto Eco, the Italian professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, writer of fiction, essays, academic texts, and children’s books, and certainly one of the finest authors of the twentieth century famous for his 1980 medieval mystery The Name of the Rose.

On the other side is one of Europe’s most distinguished screenwriters the French Jean-Claude Carriere, an eminent cinephile, a former head of the French film school and a frequent script collaborator with movie and stage directors, having worked with such greats as Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard or Peter Brook.

Eco and Carrière do discuss the past, present and the future of the book and its place in the digital age. Industry insiders predict that the traditional, printed book will disappear completely within the next 25 years in the face of competition from e-books and the easy availability of plentiful information on the Internet. In May 2011, as good barometer of changes in book-buying habits as any, announced that it is now selling more books in its electronic Kindle format than in the old paper-and-ink format.

That is remarkable, considering that the Kindle has only been around for four years. E-books now account for 14 percent of all book sales and are increasing far faster than overall book sales. E-book sales are up 146 percent over last year, while hardback sales increased 6 percent and paperbacks decreased 8 percent. The book starts by putting the argument forward of whether the ‘book’ will survive the digital revolution of the 21st Century.

“The end of the book” is, as Eco and Carrière demonstrate, a misleading phrase. First, because printed books continue to be the most efficient and enduring methods of delivering texts: computer formats rapidly become redundant, and contemporary e-books are not a good bet to outlast their printed counterparts. E-books have their place in the world of letters, but not necessarily one of total dominance. Second, because there is absolutely no evidence that longform texts themselves, as transmitters of knowledge and entertainment, are in any danger of diminishing in value.

„One of two things will happen,” Eco continues „either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as- object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years.” This made the central arguments of the book because as Eco insist book is something perfect created by man and, like all other things perfect — the wheel or the spoon or the alphabet — it can’t be perfected any further nor can it be reinvented.

Eco and Carriere don’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, but their arguments against writing off the book as archaic – complemented by their vast experience and encyclopedic knowledge – are remarkably sound. Early on, in one of the book’s most engaging sections, Carriere points out how, in the space of only two decades, technology has burned through videotapes, floppy disks, CD-ROMs. It´s have already been superseded, leaving the material supposedly preserved on them increasingly hard to retrieve.

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Books have proved more durable. „We can still read a text printed five centuries ago” he says. „But you can no longer read, or rather watch, a video or CD-ROM that is only a few years old.” Never mind what should happen if electricity or the Internet give out. Some topics are less arbitrary than others but it is impossible to talk about books without thinking about civilisations and culture. Culture is the filtered out version of what remains with us, the collective memory, the “process of selection”.

Which brings Eco and Carriere to discuss contemporary culture and hence Internet which precludes the necessity of memorising anything. „What the Internet provides,” notes Carriere, „is gross information, with almost no sense of order or hierarchy, and with the sources unchecked. So each of us needs not only to check facts, but also to create meaning.”

Eco adds that we have to learn how to handle information whose authenticity we can no longer trust. „There is actually very little to say on the subject,” Eco states. „The Internet has returned us to the alphabet … From now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen.” The implication of Eco’s logic is clear. E-books have their place in the world of letters, but not necessarily one of total dominance.

As well as contemplating the present and future of reading, this book takes us on a tour of the past. De Tonnac tosses into the ring the questions that spark the discussion, and what ensues is a delightfully meandering conversation, full of asides and anecdotes. Eco and Carrière look at the way that words have been stored over time, and how ideas have been communicated down the ages.

They give us insights into how the book lovers of the past got their fix; they talk about libraries, editors, Shakespeare, the holy books of Islam and Christianity; and about the books that are lost to us through accidental fire, negligence and stupidity.

No discussion of books and reading down the ages would be complete without a discussion of censorship. Book burning is seen as a symbolic act of “purification” after a culture has been “poisoned by certain books”. It may seem a little short-sighted to put the conclusion of a book in its title, but this book is more than the usual cliché-ridden discussion.

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.

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