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Umberto Eco is a distinguished essayist, theorist, and novelist, perhaps best known in the United States for writing The Name of the Rose, but well known in Europe as a popularizer of key arguments about literature and culture. He recently spoke at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which was built recently on what is believed to have been the site of the original Library at Alexandria.

He spoke of the importance of books in human culture, arguing against the idea that new media will kill off print culture and laying out some of the ways that they are apt to interact. He has interesting things to say about hypertext, e-books, print on demand, and many other technical developments which are currently impacting print culture.

The essay is worth reading if you are at all interested in the future of reading and writing. It combines the passions of an old humanist with a geek’s fascination with imagining new configurations of technology and culture. Some of what he says will be familiar to anyone following these debates; some is wrong headed but even when he’s wrong, he’s interesting:

“We have three types of memory. The first one is organic, which is the memory made of flesh and blood and the one administrated by our brain. The second is mineral, and in this sense mankind has known two kinds of mineral memory: millennia ago, this was the memory represented by clay tablets and obelisks, pretty well known in this country, on which people carved their texts. However, this second type is also the electronic memory of today’s computers, based upon silicon. We have also known another kind of memory, the vegetal one, the one represented by the first papyruses, again well known in this country, and then on books, made of paper. Let me disregard the fact that at a certain moment the vellum of the first codices were of an organic origin, and the fact that the first paper was made with rugs and not with wood. Let me speak for the sake of simplicity of vegetal memory in order to designate books.”

“A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such inventive activity will be implemented in the schools of the future. But the already and definitely written novel War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of our imagination, but with the severe laws governing life and death….There are books that we cannot re-write because their function is to teach us about necessity, and only if they are respected such as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable for reaching a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom.”

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