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The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco

The Infinity of Lists

by Umberto Eco

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Showing 5 of 5
For the purpose of this book, a list appears to be any work of visual art or literature that contains multiple items--which covers a lot of ground. The book is gorgeous, and I enjoyed looking at the pictures and reading the poetry. I found Eco's commentary rather a slog, and gave up on reading that about halfway through.
  SylviaC | Jan 20, 2016 |
This is definitely a book for Eco fans, not so much for a general reader. It tracks Eco's favorite themes and seems at least partially inspired by Borges. I enjoyed the book, but preferred the examples drawn from art. Those from literature tended to bog down in lengthy excerpts. As a result, it was hard to read every word of the supporting texts, but luckily the longest could be skimmed without losing the sense of Eco's argument.

As a whole, it's a very impressive survey that moves from the classical age through wonderkammer to the mass media and the internet. ( )
  Laura400 | Dec 29, 2011 |
There are people who love lists and people who claim to hate lists, but I believe those haters are narrowly focused on what Umberto Eco calls practical lists. Eco is in the camp that loves lists of a more poetic sort, and in The Infinity of Lists he presents the many subtle and not so subtle ways lists are used or implied in great literature and art.

While it is purportedly a book of lists, The Infinity of Lists calls to mind the commonplace books that began to appear in the 15th century where people gathered various bits and pieces of information they wanted to remember. A commonplace book was in effect a memory storehouse where one could put such memorabilia.

The Infinity of Lists is at first glance an art book, and Eco refers to it as an anthology rather than a commonplace book. It provides a highly focused tutorial demonstrating visually and through the written word, the techniques utilized by both artists and writers to convey everything from lofty notions of the ineffable to infinity. It accomplishes this through examples that demonstrate how a list is not merely a list, but is intended to be a metaphor for something greater than what is written or what is visible in a work of art.

As suggested above, Eco categorizes lists as practical or poetic. The lowly grocery list or arbitrary list of a hundred greatest novels or even a library catalogue can be considered as practical, and for the most part, such lists are not the subject of this book except insofar as they cross over into the realm of the poetic. What interests Eco — and the reader — is the vast number of ways lists or enumerations of various kinds have been used by writers from Aristotle to Borges to create dazzling literary effects, to suggest infinite numbers, to create a sense of wonder, a sense of excess, of chaos or of vertigo. In fact, this anthology contains excerpts from the works of almost seventy different writers from ancient times to the present which demonstrate various rhetorical tools, from Homer's catalogue of ships to Don Giovanni's seductees (2,065 all together), from the excesses of Rabelais to the chaos of Borges' "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge," and ultimately to what Eco calls "the Mother of all Lists," the World Wide Web.

In addition to this literary anthology, almost two hundred full color reproductions of paintings and art objects through the ages illustrate the text. Eco has almost nothing to say about these works of art, allowing them to speak for themselves as visual exemplars of enumeration, excess, chaos, infinity and vertigo, and more. In many cases what Eco might have to say about the selected art would be very interesting indeed. But one can extrapolate from his comments on literature, and it is probable that no one will come away from the experience of this book with the same view of pictures they had going in.

I have been thumbing through this book for the past two months mostly looking at the pictures, reading the chapter headings and a paragraph here and there, and there is something magical about the effect this book has had on me. Now that I have finished reading it, I still feel that sense of elation that came over me when I first opened it up and paged through it. There is an education to be had between its covers, and this is possibly my favorite read for this year — perhaps for several years. 5 stars ( )
23 vote Poquette | Oct 1, 2011 |
The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco

Do you remember what young Jim Hawkins and his scared mother found in the sea chest of captain Billy Bones when he collapsed quiet unexpectedly? Could you list the items collected in that fascinating burgher closet in which young Chatwin discovered that piece of dinosaur skin found on the icy shores of Patagonia? Could you tell us, without cheating, what dear Leopold Bloom found when opening his drawer?


That is a pity, because lists, my dear friends are our last line of defence when engulfed by that dark chaos in which we live. They are our last rampart to bring order to things.
This is true for shopping lists, to do lists, books to be read in 2010 lists, Top 10 of best Russian books and the basic existential reason which makes Booklovers use Librarything to turn their cosy chaos of un untended book collections into a professionally tagged, ready at hand, complete and organised Library.

Listing as a way to bring order to chaos is the topic of Umberto Eco’s “ The Infinity of lists”

There is unfortunately not much of Eco in this book. The book is in fact an anthology of lists, introduced by Eco and with some commentary added by the master to explain the numerous illustrations.

But the book is a gem. It is the kind of book you would give to a sensitive, artistic adolescent in order to push him or her a gentle towards “greatness”. This is the book you could put on the night table in the guestroom of the perfect house. You would offer mental rest together with your loving hospitality and safe comfort. This is basically the book you would hand to a sailor to comfort him when the chaos of the North – Atlantic-in – winter unleashes its chaotic terror.

This vast anthology of lists, more pictures than text hypnotizes the reader from the moment he opens the pages:

- it catalogues all the Greek ships en route to Troy as described by Homer in "The Catalogue of Ships" part of the Illiad.
- It describes in all detail the world depicted on Achilles magnificent shield made by the god Hephaestus
- A list of the all devils, all the saints
- There are Pannini depictions of art galleries
- There are depictions of Wunder – and Kunstkammers, cabinets of curiosities, rooms filled with “all the strange animals in the world”
- There is a who’s who depicted by David in his painting of The Coronation of Napoleon
- There are the Mesopotamian panels depicting battles, The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus and The Judgement of Paris and the Trojan War by Matthias Gerung, so full of figures that they really create a feeling of vertigo.
And so on and so on, the whole book is crammed with learned, insightful, provocative, intriguing and arcane lists who will keep you mesmerized again and again

Says Eco to an interviewer of the German “ Der Spiegel” :

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte.

'We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die' ( )
16 vote Macumbeira | Feb 25, 2010 |
The Infinity of Lists (Rizzoli, 2009) is Umberto Eco's latest volume in a series of whimsical musings (On Beauty, On Ugliness) that couple short essays by Eco with an anthology of short textual excerpts and beautifully-reproduced images which complement the texts.

Here, Eco meanders through the world of lists, defining the various types (including "practical" and "poetic"); their uses in literature, essays, history, poetry, and art; and their implications for the reader/viewer. He chronicles the sorts of lists used throughout history, and how those have changed over time (coming, he concludes, to "the Mother of all Lists, infinite by definition because it is in constant evolution, the World Wide Web, which is both web and labyrinth, not an ordered tree, and which of all vertigos promises us the most mystical, almost totally virtual one, and really offers us a catalogue of information that makes us feel wealthy and omnipotent, the only snag being that we don't know which of its elements refers to data from the real world and which does not, no longer with any distinction between truth and error", p. 160).

Eco's ability to cross genres and write eloquently about everything from wunderkammern to saintly relics to Italo Calvino to Miltonic verse to Arcimboldo's art to the infinite library designed by Borges becomes more and more fascinating with every book of his I read. He's a wonder, he really is. The only think I'd have liked in this book might have been longer essays by him. The rest of it is absolutely delightful, and the excellent reproductions make it an eye-pleasing browse as well.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2009/12/book-review-infinity-of-lists.html ( )
3 vote JBD1 | Dec 31, 2009 |
Showing 5 of 5
Still, if hardly definitive, "The Infinity of Lists" is nonetheless a superb sampler, with something instructive or amusing on every page -- and plenty of examples of the charm and shock accompanying any good list.
In compiling this roster—its own sort of metacollection—Eco ranges widely through Western civilization to include lists verbal (from Homer to Pynchon) and visual (from a fifth-century Greek shield to an installation by Christian Boltanski).
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When the Louvre invited me to organize a series of conferences, exhibitions, public readings, concerts, and films on a subject of my choice, I didn't hesitate and proposed the list (as well as catalogues and enumeration).
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In the history of Western culture we find lists of saints, ranks of soldiers, catalogues of grotesque creatures or medicinal plants, and hordes of treasure. In this book, Umberto Eco reflects on how the idea of catalogues has changed over the centuries and how, from one period to another, it has expressed the spirit of the times.… (more)

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