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The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay
Best-selling author and philosopher Umberto Eco is currently resident at the Louvre, and his chosen theme of study is "the vertigo of lists." Reflecting on this enormous trove of human achievements, in his lyrical intellectual style he has embarked on an investigation of the phenomenon of cataloging and collecting. This book, featuring lavish reproductions of artworks from the Louvre and other world-famous collections, is a philosophical and artistic sequel to Eco’s recent acclaimed books, History of Beauty and On Ugliness, books in which he delved into the psychology, philosophy, history, and art of human forms. Eco is a modern-day Diderot, and here he examines the Western mind’s predilection for list-making and the encyclopedic. His central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art. This impulse has recurred through the ages from music to literature to art. Eco refers to this obsession itself as a "giddiness of lists" but shows how in the right hands it can be a "poetics of catalogues." From medieval reliquaries to Andy Warhol’s compulsive collecting, Umberto Eco reflects in his inimitably inspiring way on how such catalogues mirror the spirit of their times.
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Umberto Eco published his first novel, The Name of the Rose, in 1980, when he was nearly fifty. In these “confessions,” the author, now in his late seventies, looks back on his long career as a theorist and his more recent work as a novelist, and explores their fruitful conjunction.
He begins by exploring the boundary between fiction and nonfiction—playfully, seriously, brilliantly roaming across this frontier. Good nonfiction, he believes, is crafted like a whodunnit, and a skilled novelist builds precisely detailed worlds through observation and research. Taking us on a tour of his own creative method, Eco recalls how he designed his fictional realms. He began with specific images, made choices of period, location, and voice, composed stories that would appeal to both sophisticated and popular readers. The blending of the real and the fictive extends to the inhabitants of such invented worlds. Why are we moved to tears by a character’s plight? In what sense do Anna Karenina, Gregor Samsa, and Leopold Bloom “exist”?
At once a medievalist, philosopher, and scholar of modern literature, Eco astonishes above all when he considers the pleasures of enumeration. He shows that the humble list, the potentially endless series, enables us to glimpse the infinite and approach the ineffable. This “young novelist” is a master who has wise things to impart about the art of fiction and the power of words.
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