Tag Archives: Umberto Eco

A Platypus and a Philosopher Walk into a Bar…

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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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Quote of the Day

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“It’s true, reading too many novels makes you go blind.”

Well, that explains why I wear bifocals that resemble the Hubble Space Telescope. Problem solved!

This quote comes from the insanely mind-bending novel Cloud Atlas, which many literati consider David Mitchell’s opus – for now. A brilliant multi-century set of six recurring stories that take place around the world, Cloud Atlas is without question a tour de force.

Although you might initially laugh at the sentence (how can anyone read too many novels?), I think there’s more truth to it than you might have considered. Authors like Dan Brown dance around the subject of pursuing the facts (or the truth) at the potential cost of death in a FUN! way, but I think someone like Umberto Eco does a better job of capturing the lesson here. The Name of the Rose is a phenomenal story about the thirst for knowledge and the danger this can entail. Now, you might think that learning, reading and bettering yourself mentally have no limits, but I think that’s what Cloud Atlas and Eco’s opus teach us – even with the great achievements in life, sometimes you can go too far and there are necessary consequences to these pursuits.

On a personal note, I had the extreme good fortune to get to know David Mitchell before his meteoric rise to worldwide fame. I even spent time with he and his family in Ireland before Cloud Atlas turned DM into a literary rock star and the Wachowskis picked up the rights to turn the novel into a major Hollywood film (though it pales in comparison to the book sadly). I’ve also had the good fortune to meet many other authors over the years and can say unequivocally that David is not the only the most gracious of writers I’ve gotten to know, but has a mind and a sense of creativity unlike anyone else I know of writing today.

So, if you haven’t read Cloud Atlas yet, do yourself a favour and go get it. Once you’re done that, you can start from the beginning of his oeuvre and pick up Ghostwritten, another kick-ass novel that will make your head spin with its originality.

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Quote of the Day

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Sometimes you jus’ gotta bust out da Latin. (Ed. Note: That was not Latin.)

True, lawyers, members of the clergy, academics and stuffy, uptight writers (cough, cough…barf) still drop Latin words and phrases from time to time, but Latin is officially a dead language, and has not been used as any people’s native language for over a thousand years. In Canada, my parents marked the last generation required to learn Latin in school.

Although some ascribe the Quote of the Day to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), probably best known for writing the Summa Theologica, something tells me he wasn’t the first person to utter these words. Nonetheless, the first time I came across them in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, they had a visceral effect on me. Dead language or not, these words have reverberated through history with hallowed truth.

“Amor est magis cognitivus quam cognitio.” (We know things better through love than through knowledge.)

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