Umberto Eco – A Library of the World movie review (2023)

So you think Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, a “fake” poem followed by an addled “annotation” that adds up to a sardonic yet tragic narrative, is some kind of triumph of modernism? Well, yeah, it is, but in Eco’s collection, there’s an 18th-century book by Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe called The Masterpiece of an Unknownwhich is a long mock-commentary on a nonsense verse, written about by Eco in his book La Memoria Vegetalwhich I think has yet to be fully translated into English, which is a shame.

The movie, directed by Davide Ferrario, combines archival interview footage of the ever-lively Eco, contemporary scenes of his family and friendly scholars poring over his incredible volumes and their often macabre illustrations, and readings of Eco’s work by actors. These latter moments are sometimes staged in a style that gets a little cute (complete with animation), but they convey, to some extent, the breadth of Eco’s thoughts. These components are pillowed by beautiful shots of notable libraries the world over, one so futuristic in design that I doubted it was real, but the end credits confirm it is. There’s not much Eco Origin Story here; he tells a funny story about how as a student, he entered an arrangement with a theater manager to see plays cheap or free if he and his friends applauded rousingly enough, then recalls that he always had to leave before the last act, so he spent many years, for instance, not knowing “what happened to Oedipus.”

While the twists and turns of Eco’s mind, and his delight in what are called “fake books,” have a mind-blowing force to them, Eco himself is not blind to how manufactured knowledge can harm or kill. He calls our own brain the source of “organic memory.” Books, physical books, are vegetable memories. The silicon chips in our phones and computers represent mineral memory. A great memory isn’t always a good thing. Eco cites one of his (and everybody’s, really) favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges, whose short story Funes, The Memorious is about a man who remembers everything. “And is an idiot,” Eco bluntly states. A good memory is a selective one. Hence, according to Eco, the Internet is “the encyclopedia, according to Funes.”