A Platypus and a Philosopher Walk into a Bar…

Image result for kant and the  platypus

Don’t ask me what the title of this book means. I think (stress think) it has something to do with our limited use of language to describe the world around us. The writer, none other than Umberto Eco, famed author of The Name of the Rose, is way too smart for his own good. And mine.

He starts with the story of Marco Polo, and how another famed Italian ran into a “unicorn” during The Travels in what is today’s Indonesia. In point of fact, however, it was a Javan rhinoceros. It was big. It had a horn. It kind of resembled a horse. Therefore,  it was a unicorn. Eco then hypothesizes what Signore Polo would have said had he made it to Australia and run into a platypus because, as often seems to be the case with animals in Oz, they defy description based on “old-world” foundations.

Not long ago, I heard about Eco’s Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, and quickly grew excited. I love languages, the study of linguistics, and even (sometimes) have (limited) cognition!

About one sentence into this sizeable book, I knew I was in way above my pay grade. I finished the first chapter, skimmed the second, and then threw in the towel.

If you’re a part of the publishing industry, especially in fiction, then you know how little time and space an author has to “sell” you on a project. If you’re a reader, you also know that you have a threshold. The difference between the two usually comes down to how long/far this breaking point is reached.

For agents, editors and publishers, you might get anywhere from a single paragraph to 10 or 20 pages. If you’re a grant organization, you usually offer anywhere between 10 and 30 pages for the author to shine. As a reader, I often go with the “100-page rule.” If you fail to sell me on your writing and/or story by the century mark, chances are I’m going to drop you like a bad, oversized suit. Life is too short; I’m busy; I’ve got other things on my Tsundonku shelf. The reasons are many and varied.

In any event, if you’re a glutton for scholarly linguistics then by all means pick up Eco’s book. God speed, says I! However, if you’re simply interested in learning more about Eco and how to become an “antischolar,” check out this excellent piece from Brainpickings: An inventory of the meaningful life titled “Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones.”


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