Sunday, September 22, 2013


Pages: 222
Date: 18/09/2013
Grade: 4
Details: Essays on Everything
           Received from Vintage Books
           Through Nudge

According to the introduction this book was originally going to be titled “Occasional Writings”. Which leads us to the question what “occasional writings” actually are. To quote the author:

“They are generally on topics about which the author had no specific interest. He was, instead, encouraged to write each one after being invited to contribute to a series of discussions or essays on a particular theme. It captured the author’s interest and encouraged him to reflect on something he might otherwise have ignored (…).”

As for the reason why the publisher decided to use the title of the first essay for this book instead of the author’s original idea, well those reasons should be obvious. “Inventing the Enemy” sounds a lot more intriguing than “Occasional Writings” ever could.

What we have here is a collection of 14 essays. The problem, when reviewing a collection of essays, is that there are always going to be pieces on subjects the reviewer knows little or nothing about and/or has no real interest in. That problem gets even bigger when the essays are written by a brilliant mind like Eco’s. While I can honestly say that every single word in this book was fascinating to me, I also have to be honest enough to admit that quite a few of those words went straight over my head.

I have been in awe of Umberto Eco ever since I read The Name of the Rose” and Foucault’s Pendulum”, years ago. Here we have a man with what appears to be endless knowledge about numerous subjects. A thinker able to share his thoughts, both serious and absurd, in a way that intrigues his audience, even if the audience is not always capable of following his reasoning or establishing the accuracy of his ideas and assertions.

This book contains essays on a wide variety of subjects varying from light-hearted to serious, from historical to contemporary and from philosophical to factual. Below I will share thoughts on and quotes from some of these essays. That selection is however rather arbitrary since it is very personal and limited to those pieces that struck a cord with me.

Inventing the Enemy

“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth.”

Examples ranging from Cicero to Ian Fleming, illustrate how the enemy has always been described using similar, if not identical, characteristics, regardless of who the portrayed enemy is. It seems that we cannot manage without an enemy and will create one when we find ourselves without an opponent.

Absolute and Relative

And the question whether or not there is such a thing as an absolute or relative truth.

Treasure Hunting

“The cult of the relic is to be found in every religion and culture.

Not so much philosophical as a listing of where to find which relics, which immediately makes the reader realise that certain relics can be found in more places than should logically be possible. But, of course:

“It is not the relic that makes faith, but faith that makes the relic.”

Censorship and Silence

Two forms of censorship: censorship through silence and censorship through noise.

“To avoid causing behaviour considered to be deviant, don’t talk about it, (…) To avoid talking about deviant behaviour, talk a great deal about other things.”

“Nothing is more difficult to dispose of than an irrelevant but true story.”

“In losing the condition of silence, we lost the possibility of hearing what other people are saying, which is the only basic and reliable means of communication.”

Imaginary Astronomies

From the way we saw the world and the skies in the past to the emergence of science fiction. Including the fascinating question whether, if science fiction is influenced by science, the opposite is also true?

Living by Proverbs

The idea is fascinating; creating a society in which people live their lives based on the wisdom contained in proverbs as the way to happiness. That this is of course doomed to fail is obvious, but it makes for a very interesting idea.

Ulysses: That’s All We Need

A denouement of Joyce’s Ulysses that I can’t help feeling shouldn’t be taken seriously, although I’m completely lost as to what the purpose of this essay might be if that assumption is right.

Thoughts on WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks is of course, a false scandal since everybody knew, although nobody acknowledged, that embassies had turned from representatives of their countries into information gathering operations. Furthermore, the information sent to America was not actually secret.

While modern technology makes the Big Brother scenario all too realistic – it is next to impossible to go through life unobserved – WikiLeaks has shown that this is actually a two-way street. Those in power may be able to observe us, but we, at least those of us proficient at computer hacking – can discover the secrets of that Power. 

Like most, if not all, collections of essays this is a book that is best read in bits and pieces. Reading this book from cover to cover would in all likelihood be quite exhausting. Moreover, the essays in this book are all of a rather high intellectual quality and require the reader to think along with the author, which is really only possible if they give themselves the time to absorb the information provided and the luxury of pondering it at their leisure.

What intrigued me most about this book is that while some of these essays appear to deal with subjects we completely take for granted and rarely give a second thought, Umberto Eco reflects on them from angles I had never considered and would never have considered if I hadn’t read about them here.

Overall this book provided me with a fascinating, thought-provoking and at times eye-opening reading experience. While I can’t say that every essay grabbed me to the same extent I can honestly state that they all interested me, even when – or maybe especially when – I wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was I was reading.

No comments: