Umberto Eco: On Owning Lots of Books

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Many of us have had the experience of looking dejectedly at the stack of books that we’ve been meaning to read, but simply haven’t had the time to plow through. As a reader of the blog So Many Books, I’ve enjoyed that this phenomenon is not unique, is not necessarily bad, and in fact can be celebrated as part of our bookish experience. For photographic proof, see the post on to-be-read piles at On Books and Bicycles.

In his collection of lectures entitled On Literature, Umberto Eco offers a salve for our bookish hurts. In an essay on Jorge Luis Borges and intertextual influences, he offers possible explanations for how we come to know some of the books in our libraries.

“I have many experiences that are, I think, common to all who possess very many books (I now have around forty thousand volumes, between Milan and my other houses) and to all who consider a library not just a place to keep books one has already read but primarily a deposit for books to be read at some future date, when one feels the need to read them. It often happens that our eyes fall on some book we have not yet read, and we are filled with remorse.

But then the day eventually comes when, in order to learn something about a certain topic, you decide finally to open one of the many unread books, only to realize that you already know it. What has happened? There is the mystical-biological explanation, whereby with the passing of time, and by dint of moving books, dusting them, then putting them back, by contact with our fingertips the essence of the book has gradually penetrated our mind. There is also the casual but continual scanning explanation: as time goes by, and you take up and then reorder various volumes, it is not the case that the book has never been glanced at; even by merely  moving it you glanced at a few pages, one today, another the next month, and so on until you end up by reading most of it, if not in the usual linear way. But the true explanation is that between the moment when the book first came to us and the moment when we opened it, we have read other books in which there was something that was said by that first book, and so, at the end of this long intertextual journey, you realize that even that book you had not read was still part of your mental heritage and perhaps had influenced you profoundly.”

– From Borges and My Anxiety of Influence, by Umberto Eco


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