Eco and the Funnymen

Novelist Umberto Eco talks about Homer, the Internet, comic books—and ladies' shoes

A strange critique coming from someone who's perhaps written his most inward-gazing novel. Early reviews have dismissed Mysterious Flame as nostalgic and at times so personal as to be impenetrable. Eco concedes he wrote it with his own generation in mind. "It's a book for Italian people of my age," he says. "When I was in New York 30 years ago, I saw a shop with a sign that said it was selling 'Shoes for Spanish-Speaking Fat Ladies.' There was a special market for them! So I thought of my book in this way."

Eco points out the novel has been a success throughout Europe and adds, with winking immodesty, "We have never been to Troy but by reading Homer, we feel like we've always been there. So if Homer succeeded in doing so, why not me?"

photo: Max S. Gerber

No doubt for Eco, books, in all their immutable glory, will outlast any electronic medium. As he once wrote, "Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors." Be that as it may, Eco clearly enjoys the occasional tech musing. Nearly 20 years ago, he compared Apple's Macintosh and Microsoft DOS to Catholicism and Protestantism, respectively. How would he characterize today's Internet? "We could say that the World Wide Web aspires to be God. In The Divine Comedy, Dante looks directly at God and sees a single volume containing all the sheets in the universe. God is for him the totality of wisdom and information. But the Internet, while being well-informed, may be too much informed. It can't distinguish good from evil. So I'd say that if the Web is God, it would be a very stupid God!"

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