A Library of the World

I recently saw Umberto Eco: A Library of the World, a documentary about Umberto Eco's extensive book collection. At first blush this doesn't sound like the sort of topic that would make for an interesting documentary but with something like 50000 books spread over two libraries, a significant number of them dating from the medieval era, there's actually a surprising amount of stuff to unpack here. If you like books, you'll like the film. I thought it was great.

In my case, I found myself thinking less about the books themselves and more about the subtext surrounding them. Eco was unsurprisingly disdainful of e-books and valued the physical durability of paper. It's an opinion with which it's easy to sympathize given how e-books are often saddled today with restrictive DRM and competing formats. Ink on paper doesn't have a "format" problem and often lasts centuries. Do you think you'll be able to read your Kindle 100 years from now?

And physical books are just nicer, right? The cover art, the paper, the smell, the ability to see how much you have left to read at a glance - it all adds up to an experience. And I still say that a real, paper book remains the easiest way to read something.

That being said, paper books also take up a significant amount of space and that's where it all breaks down, of course. Eco had two houses and his book collection took up a significant amount of space in both of them. Meanwhile, many young people today, especially in large cities, have trouble buying even a modest house and they are often lucky to have room for just one bookcase.

So while I get the appeal of paper, and I have a bunch of paper books myself, I find myself less dismissive of e-books than some people my age (I'm in my 40's). Their promise - thousands of books in one small device - is hard to ignore. The disdain of some people comes off as self-righteous and clueless. The amount of privilege required to have a library worth exploring is considerable and I know I'm lucky to have one, paltry as it is.

So, nowadays, my format of choice for a book tends to be electronic until it's proven to have an impact on my life. Often I don't know it's made an impact until some time after I've read it. If I find myself describing the book to random people at parties, that's usually a hint. At that point, I'll carve out a place on my bookshelf and buy the real thing. It feels like a decent compromise.

And I'm pretty good about getting rid of books, too. Gone are the days when I hoard them for show. My library is slowly turning into just the books that are meaningful to me, which is as it should be.

Still, though, Umberto Eco's library is thing of beauty :-)