4 Questions with Umberto Eco, Author and Professor Emeritus, University of Bologna

Umberto Eco[image via Bologna Inside]

Things need to happen step by step, respecting a learning process — excessive greed can undermine a person's goals permanently. As a professor and author, he pushed our minds to the limit.

A former student said, “He argued that intuition was simply speedy logic, and Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes were the masters of this semiotic.”# I wasn't so lucky to have him as professor, but I share the sentiment on what it feels like wanting to learn to understand.

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was a semiologist, philosopher, mass media expert and narrator. He was a teacher and professor emeritus at the University of Bologna, receiving the Sigillum Magnum, the university's most prestigious award.

A Renaissance man, his range of cultural interests extended beyond aesthetics and medieval philosophy to include avant-garde music, literature and painting as well as the novelties of mass communication.

He helped set up the first Drama, Art and Music Studies (DAMS) course in Italy at the beginning of the 70s, established the Communication Sciences degree program (1992), directing it in its initial years. In 1990, he founded the Advanced School of Humanistic Studies, over which he presided until his death. [source: #]

Eco was as at easy in the world of arcane philosophy as he was in the domain of popular culture. It's this moving between worlds that creates mental agility, and the professor had that in spades.

I imagine a conversation with Eco based on the many interviews he left behind when we died in 2016.

Q: Why did you find a home teaching at such a young University of Bologna? What with it's almost thousand years in existence…

Eco: In the theses of my students I always found citations from theses of others students who were working on them at the same time. This means the students were talking about their work while walking around the porticoes and meeting in Osterie at night.

Students communicate with each other, “Osterie and porticoes, this is one of the most beautiful aspects of the University of Bologna.” They also find appointments abroad, which means that good students from an Italian university can compete at international level. [Source #]

Q: What's your advice for young people?

Eco: Don't take yourself too seriously.” Genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. I don't understand the novelists who publish a book every year. They loose the pleasure of spending six, seven, eight years to prepare a story.

When young people ask me about writing advice, I tell them you cannot become a general without first being a corporal, a lieutenant, so go there step by step. Don't expect the Nobel Prize right off the bat. This is what kills a literary career. [source #]

Q: What's surprising about the classics, and what delights?

Eco: We still haven't decided on a definition of classic, so I'll give a sociological one, that is without judging its merit. A classic is a book everyone hates because we've been forced to study it in school.

Take for example The Bethroted (I Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni. I was lucky enough to come across the book as a gift from my father, who was a printer. He gave it to me six months before I had to study it in school.

I read it because I chose to, before it came with homework, and loved it. I've been re-reading the book since then. School is organized to make you hate the classics, independently from the skill and experience of your professor.

We had a professor who loved reading the classics. It was like watching someone savor the sweet taste of honey, seeing him read them. He was certainly a spectacle, but he was unable to explain we we should like them. We remember his orgasm, but we never understood why we should love classics.

A classic is a survivor. Read Aristotle's Poetic, and you find a dozen tragedies we know nothing about. They didn't survive. Why did Sophocles survive? Was he the best? Was he the most connected with the theatrical producers? Maybe by chance? His works weren't kept in a place that burned down to the ground. We have no idea.

Dante might not have survived the 18th Century, when nobody wanted to read him anymore. We need to have a certain faith in filtering. Sometimes people try to explain to me that there are the classics and there are best sellers, which sell well, but have no literary value.

“Classics survived because they were all best sellers.” The Bible was a best seller. Even locksmiths could quote Dante. Manzoni lost a lot of money because there were dozens of pirate versions of The Betrothed in many languages and he wasn't getting the author's right.

Is this a reliable criterion? It's possible that millions of people get it wrong. It's also possible that a book filled a niche or need when it was published, and now it doesn't anymore. The classics survived for Darwinian reasons, luckier than the dinosaurs. 

With the classics we face the question of memory. This is a fundamental function for individual life. Memory is fundamental for society. We live because we remember what has gone before us. Libraries and the Internet, with ll its issues, are places where memory survives.

We live less, with less personality, without memory. There are also risks with memory. Remember everything and you have overload. You'd go crazy if you knew everything that is online.

While the first virtue of memory is that it preserves, the second is that it filters. If we didn't have this process, we'd go mad. The classics are the result of these two functions of memory. Should we trust them? No. Which is why we should be skeptical of filtering.

Churchill used to say that, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.” We haven't found anything better. There's a core of works that seems to hold steady, and peripheral books that have their time in different ages.

Maybe it's all rubbish, but when we talk about the Oedipus complex with a psychologist, we're talking about Sophocles. The classics influence our thoughts and words. Reading the classics, even those that might have survived for the wrong reasons, is useful to understand what we're thinking.

When we discover, or rediscover the classics, we find they're filled with surprises and delight. Director Roberto Benigni re-reads Dante before filming because he finds incredible techniques in his works. It's hard to understand the machinations of mysteries without re-reading Oedipus King. They're a fertile territory for adventure.

Maybe all this is not interesting, it doesn't matter to you. But the thing is that reading the classics helps you have a longer life. We say that when we're bored, time seems to stop, and it goes fast only when we're having a great time. It's not true. Someone spends their whole life doing the same things over and over and looks back thinking they haven't lived at all.

Imagine a time when you were in the thick of lots of activities. Maybe you were on vacation. You remember those days as very full. The impression is that you lived a lot, intensely. This is a reason why we've always dedicated some of our time remembering the past.

If you remember the assassination of Julius Caesar and the Battle of Waterloo, in addition to your own memories, you've lived more than someone who has no idea about those things. Our memories are also made of what our parents, grandparents, uncles told us, sometimes more than once. So much so that they become part of our personal memory.

I remember World War I, and I wasn't even born. When we remember more, it's as if we'd lived more. This is a good reason to read the classics, independently from all the rest.

Valentino Bompiani said, “A person who reads is worth two.” Which doesn't mean they'll be incredibly successful, because we know successful people who've read nothing.

Longevity and richness come from the memories we absorb from others. Don't let the people who say you only need to read the important books blackmail you. Our imagination gets its nourishment from disparate sources.

After turning 30, you'll appreciate the idea of living longer. This is a good reason to read the classics. We'll remember everything we've read before we were 24. We enjoy what we ready throughout our lives. Every book is different from the others.

Read books, build your library. “I hope to live a long life to remember everything other people have told me.” [Source #]

Q: You’ve always had the finger on the pulse, what’s next for humanity?

Eco: If you find something that is incredible to believe, as some have in my book, The Prague Cemetery, you better believe it, because it's true. I couldn't have made it up. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are the result of constant paranoia. [Source #]

Humanity has always organized itself around the control of encyclopedic knowledge – what we know collectively, whether fictitious, fake, or accurate. One of the functions of an encyclopedia is not just to preserve knowledge. After all, we couldn't talk or communicate, if we didn't have a common reference.

Encyclopedia has also the purpose of filtering knowledge. The Internet is an encyclopedia, but it potentially contains everything, but doesn't offer the instruments to filter information. You never know if the information is reliable.

This means a new challenge for humanity. If the old challenge was to have as much encyclopedia as possible, the new one is to get rid of as much stuff as possible. We haven't invented this science of decimation yet.

It's not guaranteed that it will ever be, nor that it is a science. It could be a form of practice you learn through imitation and instinct, in the same way as we learn certain disciplines by doing, rather than through firm rules.

Up until now, we all relied on a common and accepted encyclopedia, with the exceptional challenges on certain points, of course. But without this starting point there couldn't have been a human relationship.

Right now, there's at least a theoretical possibility that 6 billion people browse the Internet and we get 6 billion different encyclopedia. This would mean the complete inability to communicate. 

Knowledge is both acquisition and filtering. Memory is retention and also rejection. Otherwise we couldn't have psycho-analysis, where we go find things that were removed, but shouldn't have been.

We can't retain everything, we need to eliminate. If the Internet doesn't eliminate, it's not a model of human intelligence. It might be a model of divine intelligence. Except for it would a stupid god, who knows too many things.

This is not about meaning, it's about the brute amount of information. It's the same with people who eat too much – they die from sheer volume. With sense we tell the difference between caviar, lobster, and omelette. With Gran Bouffe, we talk only about quantity. The Internet is the Gran Bouffe, it's impossible to make distinctions between caviar, lobster, and omelette. [Source #]


Sorting and filtering is necessary to the transmission of knowledge and the making of memories. In fact, Eco said there was value in the books we have not read, yet.

Our knowledge may be incomplete, and we may still have lives full of amazing memories. It's what we choose to share in common, and learn for ourselves, that give it meaning.

“The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else,” said Eco. His obituary says:

An intellectual and academic, Eco achieved the rare combination of acclaim and popularity with his breakout success, a medieval mystery novel, “The Name of the Rose.” The novel wove a detective story starring medieval monks with religious themes and an exploration of symbolism. The novel was an unexpected success and was translated into many languages, including English.

His follow-up novel, “Foucault’s Pendulum,” about editors who amuse themselves with a fictional conspiracy theory about the Knights Templar was so dense with puzzles that it was published with an annotated guide. However, this did not stop it from becoming a success with his fans, whom he sometimes described as “masochists.”

Eco thought of himself more as a philosopher than a novelist. He wrote academic texts, essays and even children’s books. He made lasting contributions to the field of semiotics, which can be described as the study of symbols and their use to convey meaning.

[…] with Eco, there was deep thought behind his humor and an ever-expanding web of meaning to be explored.

“I think that comedy is the quintessential human reaction to the fear of death,” he told The Paris Review, “If you ask for something more, I cannot tell you. But perhaps I’ll create an empty secret now, and let everyone think that I have a theory of comedy in the works, so when I die they will spend a lot of time trying to retrieve my secret book.”

Hundreds of people attended his funeral in Milano#.