This is not the end of the book (Harvill Secker, 2011) is a conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière about the past and future of books. For us bibliophiles, this is like listening to the pope debate the Archbishop of Canterbury around a campfire. The discussion ranges from their collections of incunabulum (books printed before 31 December 1500) to the definition of stupidity, how to filter information and what will happen to book collections when you die – and then some more.
Some topics are less arbitrary than others: the conversation begins with a discussion of the rise of e-books and the possible “end of the book” to which the title refers. They argue that paper is the medium that have survived all other media and will continue to do so, even if books are now available in many other formats. (As an economic historian, I must concur: data collated on microfilm in the 1980s is now more difficult to access than archival records of the 18th century). There are several delightful ideas and anecdotes. Jean-Claude argues, for example, that there are two kinds of books: “The book the author writes, and the one the reader owns.” I like that. A book changes meaning as the reader (and the context within which it is being read) changes. Animal Farm read in 1980s South Africa has a different meaning than it has today. Great books manage to maintain their relevance, even as the readership and the world changes around them. Great Gatsby remains a classic, but will Harry Potter be read by future generations? Can’t we only really discern good from great books a century after they’ve been published?
This is not a book to be read in one sitting. Rather, it is like good wine; allow it to linger on your taste buds while swishing it around the entirety of your mouth. Read a section, mull over its contents, read a bit further, drink more wine. And like meeting an old friend, hope the conversation never ends.