- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Umberto Eco on Writing, Reading, Books, and More


Happy birthday, Umberto Eco! Here are some quotes from the writer:


“Show not what has been done, but what can be.”


“I love the smell of book ink in the morning.”


“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…”


“To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative—the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.”


“Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”


“To survive, you must tell stories.”


“All the stories I would like to write persecute me. When I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are all around me, like little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, ‘Sir, write me, I am beautiful.'”


“After all, the cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopaedia.”


“I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it. I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”


“A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection—not an invitation for hypnosis.”


“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”


“Absence is to love as wind is to fire: it extinguishes the little flame, it fans the big.”


“Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”


“How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn’t have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopped describing the sky, simply listing what they see…We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”


“It is necessary to meditate early, and often, on the art of dying to succeed later in doing it properly just once.”


“How should we deal with intrusions of fiction into life, now that we have seen the historical impact that this phenomenon can have?…Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters.”


“After all, the cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopaedia.”


“I am mimetic. If I write a book set in the seventeenth century, I write in a Baroque style. If I’m writing a book set in a newspaper office, I write in Journalese.”


“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”


“Fear prophets…and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.


“A philosophy has a practical power: it contributes to the changing of the world. This practical power has nothing to do with the engineering power that in the discussion above I attributed to sciences, including specific semiotics. A science can study either an animal species or the logic of road signals, without necessarily determining their transformation. There is a certain ‘distance’ between the descriptive stage and the decision, let us say, to improve a species through genetic engineering or to improve a signaling system by reducing or increasing the number of its pertinent elements.

On the contrary, it was the philosophical position of the modern notion of thinking subject that led Western culture to think and to behave in terms of subjectivity. It was the position of notions such as class struggle and revolution that led people to behave in terms of class, and not only to make revolutions but also to decide, on the grounds of this philosophical concept, which social turmoils or riots of the past were or were not a revolution. Since a philosophy has this practical power, it cannot have a predictive power. It cannot predict what would happen if the world were as it described it. Its power is not the direct result of an act of engineering performed on the basis of a more or less neutral description of independent data.”


“A philosophy does not play its role as an actor during a recital; it interacts with other philosophies and with other facts, and it cannot know the results of the interaction between itself and other world visions. World visions can conceive of everything, except alternative world visions, if not in order to criticize them and to show their inconsistency. Affected as they are by a constitutive solipsism, philosophies can say everything about the world they design and very little about the world they help to construct.”


“No algorithm exists for the metaphor, nor can a metaphor be produced by means of a computer’s precise instructions, no matter what the volume of organized information to be fed in.”


“What is frequently appreciated in many so-called symbols is exactly their vagueness, their openness, their fruitful ineffectiveness to express a ‘final’ meaning, so that with symbols and by symbols one indicates what is always beyond one’s reach.”


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