It wasn’t until he died, in 2016, that the celebrated Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco went properly viral. Resurfaced as a listicle of sorts, his 1995 essay delineating the salient features of fascism seemed newly timely then, not just as so-called shareable content, but also as tribute to Eco’s deep consideration of how words mean what they mean, and why it matters. Even more widely shared, however, was something wholly wordless: a video of Eco striding through his enormous personal library, which gradually reveals itself as preposterously vast. With the camera tracking his every turn down new book-lined corridors, a sort of sublime rapture sets in; it’s a bit like Danny Torrance Big-Wheeling through the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, except what’s spine-tingling here isn’t creepy twin-girl ghosts but the simultaneous magnificence and precariousness of all human knowledge.
Bibliophiles who passed that video around should be delighted to know its originator, Davide Ferrario, now has added essential context, by making it the opening of his new documentary, Umberto Eco – A Library of the World (2023). An affirming experience for those who line their living spaces with physical media in one form or another, Ferrario’s film also offers an apt memorial to Eco the avuncular public intellectual, whose eclectic scholarship covered other stubbornly topical cultural phenomena such as misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the tech-abetted evolution of semiotics.
Eco thought a lot about the difference between information and knowledge. For him, the advent of the internet called to mind the Borges story about a man who remembered everything and was therefore too overwhelmed to think, let alone communicate. As Ferrario gently but enthusiastically points out, choice Eco pronouncements—including “memory is soul” and “without memory it’s impossible to build a future”—feel bittersweetly prophetic now, with even the most sophisticated forays into AI so far seeming like escalating episodes of collective dementia.
Yet books, if we hold them dear, have a way of holding up. Sentimentally, sure, but technologically as well. You can’t dog-ear your iPad Proust, Eco says during a characteristically erudite conversation with prolific screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, in what might seem like a too-easy quip except for how thoroughly it’s substantiated: their whole conversation also became a book, called (in English) This Is Not the End of the Book. In that text and in this film we find the durable idea that there is no contradiction between book smarts and worldly wisdom.
Loosely joining archival footage, interviews with loved ones, key Eco writings reframed as dramatic monologues, and the occasional animated interlude, Ferrario’s casual collage of techniques is refreshingly unacademic. He’s not above panning reverently across leather-bound tomes bathed in caramel light, or staging a summary montage of worldwide library solidarity, as if, somewhere between the vaguely Borg-cube vibes of the Biblioteca Vasconcelos and the sleek, soft-white, supermodern Eye of Binhai, our intellectually prosperous human future awaits. Umberto Eco paved one possible way there, by roaming purposefully among the stacks.
Umberto Eco – A Library of the World opens today, June 30, at Film Forum.