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On Literature by Umberto Eco

On Literature (edition 2006)

by Umberto Eco

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Title:On Literature
Authors:Umberto Eco
Info:Vintage (2006), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:non-fiction, literature, source: basement books

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On Literature by Umberto Eco

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A mixed bag; ceremonial talks at awards ceremonies probably aren't where a scholar produces his best work. He's at his dullest talking about the authors he admires, like Joyce or Borges (and outright useless talking about ones he doesn't, like Oscar Wilde), and at his best talking about things like the persistent influence of Aristotle's Poetics in modern ideas about narrative, or the rhetorical structures in The Communist Manifesto. I just like the fact that he's one of those rare figures (his compatriot Italo Calvino is another) who breaks down the usual novelist-scholar dichotomy. Whatever you think of their work, it's refreshing to see someone try to operate outside the increasingly large number of increasingly small boxes cultural production gets put into nowadays. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
Seen this film by Luc Besson? (William, I promise you, this review is about [b:On Literature|10508|On Literature|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1166253877s/10508.jpg|1921771]).

A 21 hour plane trip is usually the only chance I have to watch a few films. The last long journey I made offered such a dismal selection that for this trip I was already packed with every single one of those books on my 'currently reading' list and determined to finish each (and write a review) whilst on the first and longest leg of my two sector flight.

The best laid plans of ants and a person.

I decided to start with [a:Umberto Eco|1730|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1217498277p2/1730.jpg], and following my fickle habit, I opened his book at random. Oh yes, I'd already read the first few essays, and jumped ahead to the last two, so now I was left with the real guts of the book, what lay between its covers.

At this point you might be asking yourself why would a self-professed I-am-not-a-literary critic bother with Eco's [b:On Literature|10508|On Literature|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1166253877s/10508.jpg|1921771]? The answer roams around and finally arrives at this: in a prior romantic incarnation, I'd been given [b:The Name of the Rose|918739|The Name of the Rose|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1285704766s/918739.jpg|3138328] by my one-time lover and told to "broaden my mind". Eco exploded my mind. Don't ask me why - I'm excellent at remembering my feelings, and a disaster at remembering the reasons. But as an attempt: it had something to do with the allure of Europe (still to be explored), mediaeval history (I know very little), mystery (yes, please) and double entendre (which I probably didn't realise, and still don't).

At some point after that I read [b:Foucault's Pendulum|863942|Foucault's Pendulum|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1179000348s/863942.jpg|11221066], in that miserable after-life one endures for a while when a relationship implodes. Eco impressed me still more. I stranded myself within [b:The Island of the Day Before|567539|The Island of the Day Before|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1175871617s/567539.jpg|1792697] and came to an abrupt and crashing halt in the first pages of [b:Baudolino|563885|Baudolino|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1175822930s/563885.jpg|234717]. Eeyyuuwwhh. What happened, Mr Eco? We'd been enjoying such a lovely dalliance until you stuffed your character with his testicles and paraded him naked through the streets lined with a screaming mob baying for his blood. The allegory lost me. And so did Eco.

Until one day a few weeks ago I was browsing in a little bookshop in the bowels of the Dandy Mall located on Cairo-Alexandria Road just at the toll-gates exiting Greater Cairo. It's usually a safe bet for kids' books, and as serendipity would have it, On Literature happened to be falling from the top of a Pisa pile of books. I picked it up and rifled though it, curious, with that nonchalant distance time delights in using to craze the patina of a by-gone affair. Something hooked me and now I know why. But I needed a film, which I've just finished watching, to put On Literature into perspective, to show me how Eco's thoughts relate to a modern interpretation and playful satire on our popular film culture.

Following my re-acquaintance with Mr Eco (we're both too old now for that first flush of infatuation), I needed a change of scene. Unlike previous lacklustre film offerings, this flight had a dazzling array - Italian, German, Japanese, Indian, not too mention two gorgeous sounding filmed operas Das Rheingold and Le Nozze di Figaro. The Social Network was also premiering (and to keep the peace with my partner, I agreed to watch it - and I recommend it also) but the description of Luc Besson's eccentric-sounding film hooked me as my first choice.

If you haven't seen it, and I recommend you do, The Extraordinary Adventures of Miss Adele Blanc-Sec is the perfect visual example of Mr Eco's thoughts on how literature informs itself and makes itself culturally apt for the audience of each age. Umberto Eco is no true intellectual literary snob. He may deplore the use of dictionally inappropriate language, metaphor, allegory, but he welcomes the evolution of expression, the directness of unloaded language. "In a world where the man in the street cannot speak, even the poet must remain silent."p.157.

Signposts (note Eco cautions against the use of the word 'symbol') abound throughout the film, in a funny, fantastic, bizarre way. It demonstrates the intertextual irony of which Eco writes - if you don't know what happened to the Titanic, you won't understand the fate of our heroine, Ms Blanc-Sec (or Dry-White (as in wine), if you prefer English - see what I mean?). If you haven't read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, the use of a pterodactyl will seem as good a choice as any for a creature hatched from a prehistoric egg and which apparently informs the design of our modern feathered friends. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkahban receives due homage in a daring flight of rescue, and Ms Blanc-Sec herself seems an intrepid heroine without our knowing that she is pre-dated by Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.

The noir of the film is all French, all Besson. Eco notes how our interaction with a text is never devoid of our own circumstances - any reading of a book on its own merits, without acknowledging how our personal experiences inform how we respond to a book is, at best, naive. Having lived in Paris (I recommed a sub-titled version if you don't speak French, rather than dubbed) and being familiar with Besson's cinematic style only made my experience of this film richer. But Besson doesn't exclude; just as Eco postulates, writing weaves meaning at more than one level of sophistication, so even if you haven't lived in or visited Paris for any length of time, this film will still appeal.

Like Eco the fiction writer, Besson is a director who dares cross established genre borders and upsets both sides of the establishment (commercial vs indie) as well as the Atlantic (US vs Eureopean). But he never loses sight of his primary goal. Regardless of his delight in pushing the envelope, Besson focusses on entertaining his audience. And that is the point of the tantalisingly brief last essay of Eco's collection: avoid the narcissism of writing for oneself.

"There is only one thing that you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list....Every other thing that you write, you write to say to something to someone....One writes only for a reader. Whoever says (s)he writes only for (her)himself is not necessarily lying. It is just...frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigourously secular point of view....desperate (is) the writer who cannot address a future reader."p.334.

Eco, in his essay on the anxiety of influence (pp.118-135), acknowledges himself to be the inept musician replaying his version of the melodies belonging to those to whom he owes the debt of influence. That sense of awe he holds for Borges 'limpidly classical' style, I have for his lyrically contemporary own.

And so I encourage anyone who feels as I do, a flea clinging to the coat-tails of the geniuses of narrative who have soared before us: to paraphrase the words of two GR friends for whom I have the utmost respect, write your words, your music, your scripts, for your audience, who will be uplifted and inspired and re-affirmed by what we strive to re-create, just as we have been by our own masters. ( )
1 vote Scribble.Orca | Mar 31, 2013 |
Very scholarly, demanding and inspiring from an academic who semiotics frames his study and writing of literature. ( )
  wonderperson | Mar 31, 2013 |
Viva Umberto. ( )
  BooksForDinner | Oct 3, 2011 |
The book is a collection of rewritten essays on literature from the past 20 to 30 years. The range of topics in the book is vast and for someone who (me) is neither an expert nor a student of the field, some of them are beyond difficult to follow. However, the essays that deal with Eco's own novels and other familiar books are very enjoyable. What I appreciate the most is the chance to learn how someone with actual knowledge of the history and literary references understands the mentioned books. The essay on intertextual irony and levels of reading was a bit of an eye-opener for a casual reader like me, who generally just appreciates a good story. :)

I would recommend the book for someone with a deeper interest in literature or who is simply a fan of Eco as e.g. the final essay on how he writes his stories is both informative and funny. If I struggled with some of the essays, I laughed while reading the last one. After so many essays of being overwhelmed with Eco's knowledge, the last one paints a very different picture of the same man in an interview, ready to discuss his book and ideas, only to be asked whether he writes with a pen or a pencil. I could almost see the comic strip in my head. ( )
  millata | Jul 31, 2010 |
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Come autore di opere narrative sono un soggetto piuttosto anomalo.

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Det finnes et farlig kjetteri, typisk for vår tid, som sier at man kan gjøre hva man vil med et litterært verk og lese inn i det hva som helst våre ukontrollerbare impulser måtte foreslå oss.
Viktigere er oppdagelsen av at tingene er gått på en bestemt måte, og for alltid, hinsides lesernes ønsker. Leseren bør akseptere denne frustrasjonen, og gjennom den oppleve Skjebnens gys.
Jeg tror at denne oppdragelsen til Skjebne og Død er en av litteraturens hovedfunksjoner. Det finnes kanskje andre, men akkurat nå kommer jeg ikke på noen.
Å forandre og forbedre seg hele tiden er en anbefalelsesverdig praksis, som jeg ofte forsøker å leve opp til - enkelte ganger på grensen til det schizofrene. Men det finnes tilfeller der man ikke bør gi inntrykk av at man har skiftet mening bare for å bevise at man er oppdatert. Heller ikke når det gjelder meninger er monogami nødvendigvis et tegn på manglende libido.
Som tolkningsstrategi er den ikke så ille, dersom å tolke betyr å akkumulere titler for å søke akademiske stillinger.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156032392, Paperback)

In this collection of essays and addresses delivered over the course of his illustrious career, Umberto Eco seeks "to understand the chemistry of [his] passion" for the word. From musings on Ptolemy and "the force of the false" to reflections on the experimental writing of Borges and Joyce, Eco's luminous intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge are on dazzling display throughout. And when he reveals his own ambitions and superstitions, his authorial anxieties and fears, one feels like a secret sharer in the garden of literature to which he so often alludes.

Remarkably accessible and unfailingly stimulating, this collection exhibits the diversity of interests and the depth of knowledge that have made Eco one of the world's leading writers.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:28 -0400)

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"In this collection of essays and addresses delivered over the course of his career, Umberto Eco seeks to understand the chemistry of his passion for the word."--BOOK JACKET.

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