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In memory of Umberto ECO

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In October of 2013, Filippo Rotundo and I opened  PrPh Rare Books,  our new venture in New York.

The highlight of the vernissage, was a “blessing” as it were from Umberto Eco.

Yet just a month ago, not only did the world of antiquarian books lose one of its foremost patrons and advocates, but Italy lost one of the great eccellenze which distinguished our country throughout the world. Not fashion, not cuisine, but Cultura. Having had the honor of accompanying him in what he was perfectly aware would be his last trip to the U.S. – for lectures at Yale and the United Nations I realized that his reputation abroad was even higher than in Italy. Not only academics, but well-read Americans regarded him as a virtual walking legend.

It would be difficult to underestimate what the world of antiquarian books – librarians and collectors as well as dealers owes to Eco. Through his novels, he brought the mysterious world of medieval libraries and antiquarian books to a much wider public, indeed, a world-wide public. I met him almost 40 years ago, while he was writing Il nome della rosa and he used to visit often Libreria Pregliasco in Turin. He was writing what would become his most famous book at the time. I like to think that back in the Fifties, as a penniless student, Eco timidly looked for books in my grandfather’s bookstore, located near the University, where he was completing a thesis on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas.

In his masterpiece he writes: “The library is a great labyrinth … You enter and you do not know whether you will come out… A monk should surely love his books with humility, wishing their good and not the glory of his own curiosity; but what the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks”.

Besides our love of books, mutual and deep, Eco and I shared common origins near Torino and the pleasure for puns and puzzles. As well as the name: this fact played a part in our relationship and bond. I cherish the letters which began ‘Caro Omonimo’; those in which he pointed out inaccuracies or errors in my catalogues; and his regret when a book he especially coveted had been sold. In my favourite letter he complains about the weight of an Encyclopédie and the tennis elbow he got while moving 28.000 volumes of his library to the new flat.

As a collector he may have been a valued client, but I for one am certain that Eco’s intellectual contribution to the antiquarian book trade were infinitely more valuable than his purchases, however much he might pay for a rare first edition: “Since I made my money with a book, I spent it buying other books” he used to say.

What did he make of us antiquarian booksellers? “Usually they are people with whom you can chat for an entire afternoon, and they don’t even expect to sell you anything . And I was pleased, for example, when Umberto Pregliasco has noticed that almost all the chapters of “The Island of the Day Before” are titled as some 17th century books by Galileo, Kircher, Huygens, Copernicus”. In fact, he wanted even the index of that novel to become a downright hymn to bibliophily. Umberto used to keep the most important part of his library in a dark and unheated room, and every month he mounted in his living room thematic exhibitions in four window-cases, just for his own pleasure and that of his guests only: as a rare books collector I am fascinated by the human propensity for deviating thought. So I collect books about subjects in which I don’t believe, like kabbalah, alchemy, magic, invented languages. I am interested in fakes, in falsity. I don’t have Galileo, but I have Ptolemy, because he was wrong”.

I have wondered for years which came first in Eco’s novels: the chicken or the egg. I mean, is it the writer’s need which guided the book collecting, or the collection which inspired the writing? One thing is certain: indeed all of his novels were both inspired and supported by a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of ancient and medieval texts. Il nome della rosa shows his familiarity with books as diverse as herbals, material medica, labyrinths, and of course, the Inquisition. Needless to say, my dream would be to find a manuscript of the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetic in praise of laughter, which causes Jorge’s homicides and the fire in the library surely the source of the worst nightmares for any antiquarian bookseller.

The same meticulous research on rare books Eco made for all of his novels. When, as was usually the case, I could never infer the theme of his novel-in-progress from his diverse purchases, upon completion he would send me a copy with the dedication: “so you’ll see why I needed that book”.

Once Eco told me that he wouldn’t approve – but he may understand – bibliophiles who wouldn’t even open the pages of an uncut copy:“It would be like for a collector of watches, to break the case to check the mechanismThere are collectors who even read the books they collect. But they want the object, and possibly the first edition… A library of rare books is not a sum of books, it is a living organism with an independent life. It is not only the place of your memory, where you keep what you read, but the place of universal memory, where one day you will find the books which others have read before you”.

I think I may be among thehappy few who have given five lectures alongside Umberto Eco, and, since I served as the president of ALAI, the Italian Association enjoyed the great honor of having as its official patron the leading Italian intellectual of the last decades. Even in a whirlwind life of constant writing, teaching, attending conferences all over the world, Eco has always made time for the world of book-collecting. He opened the ILAB Congress in Bologna and two international bookfairs in Milan with lectures, always drawing standing-room-only audiences. During our chats, Umberto shared with me his ideas and his feelings: Sometimes it happens that a neglected book comes to my hand, and suddenly I realize that I already know everything it says. This peculiar phenomenon has only three reasonable explanations. The first one is that I absorbed its knowledge by touch, as if it was written in Braille. Simply by moving the book from shelf to shelf, my fingertips gained understanding of its contents. The second explanation is that I read that book because every time I moved it I gave a look to its pages or its pictures; because little by little, its paper, its colours and its ink talked to me of different and far away ages, places and ideas. The third is that, as times went by, I read other books that talked about, or actually quoted, that other one. Actually I think that all the three explanations are true. They somehow magically match and together they concur to make us intimate to those pages that we have never truly read”.

Jorge-Luis Borges, whom Eco of course revered and who inspired the character of the blind librarian Jorge, once said that “when a writer dies he embodies the books he has written”. We antiquarian booksellers know that Umberto Eco will not only become the books he has written, but also the books he collected. One of Eco’s essays on bibliophily is entitled The vegetal memory: the book on paper, vegetal record of human civilization, which came after the first mineral record in cave paintings as well as the animal one in manuscripts on vellum. I’m sure that the printed book will be joined, but hopefully not supplanted, by the newest material of record – mineral again – this time on silicon chips.

I try here to commemorate Umberto not as the best-known contemporary Italian writer, nor as the erudite scholar or great intellectual. Rather, I pay tribute to Umberto Eco as I believe he would have wished, revealing the Liaisons dangereuses between the collector and his “pusher” of rare books. And, since he entitled two of his essays How to travel with a Salmon and Kant and the Platypus, I do hope not having played here the part either of the salmon or of the platypus, towards such a philosopher. There is no better way for me to say goodbye to this great bibliophile – and friend – than to paraphrase one of his essays: “We’ll never get rid of the books”.

Umberto Pregliasco

In memory of Umberto Eco »