The Strange and whimsical history of books

Umberto Eco: A Library of the World
Documentary, (Italy, 2022)

Review by Iva Apostolova

If you think that the two-hour documentary, directed by Davide Ferrario (After Midnight), is a eulogy to the late Umberto Eco, you will be sorely mistaken. As a matter of fact, this documentary is not about virtues at all (the virtues of reading or writing, for example); on the contrary, it is mostly about the curious nature of human vices. It is true that the movie focuses on the persona of one of the greatest writers of our time, over whose body of work both literature and philosophy still fight for the claim. But it is not a movie about Umberto Eco per se. If anything, it gives the audience a sneak peek into the strange and whimsical history of books: how books came about, who collected them and for what purpose were they used. And if you think you know books, the movie will make you think again.

Italian thinker Umberto Eco, best known for his novels The Name of the Rose (which he claims he detests), Foucault’s Pendulum and his penultimate novel, Prague Cemetery, is in fact a semiotician by training and profession. He remained a Professor Emeritus at University of Bologna until his death in 2016. Semiotics, a hybrid discipline between linguistics and philosophy, is the study of signs and their meanings. What the movie makes you realize is that unlike what most people would expect from the personality of an academic, and a famous one at that, Umberto Eco is the most down-to-earth relatable character you’ll ever meet. His ability to comfortably express himself in Italian, French, Spanish and English, coupled with his piercing sarcasm, self-deprecating sense of humour and the ever-present twinkle in his eye, have made him a favourite interlocutor in academic and popular discussions alike. Eco is one of those one-in-a-billion scholars who feels as much at home in a university hall as at a Comicon event.

The fact that Eco was an avid book collector may not come as much of a surprise. Although owning books is one thing but being the sole proprietor of a whopping fifty-thousand-plus book collection, making it one of the largest, if not the largest private book collections in the world, is quite another. But Eco’s is no ordinary book collection: its heart and soul are rare ancient manuscripts about curiosities (both real and fantastical), ancient and medieval “fake” books (that is, books about fake historical events or fake scientific manuscripts), books about the occult, the list goes on. It looks like he was interested in the underbelly of literature, that which lies hidden and locked in the vaults of human psyche. Why? you may ask. As the British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, the so-called “bad” books are immensely useful, if for nothing else, to teach us valuable lessons about writing and thinking. But even more importantly, as I’m sure Eco himself would concur, with a wink nonetheless, what drives the world is imagination, and imagination needs feeding. After all, what better food than the bizarre, the weird, the odd and the curious preserved in stories and pictures?

Running time: 120 mins
Available on AppleTV+, Prime Video

Iva Apostolova is associate professor and vice-rector, research and academic, at Saint Paul University and a regular Glebe Report contributor on films and TV.

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