Umberto Eco with Paul Holdengräber at NYPL Live

When I’m missing the mountains and open skies of Colorado, there are two bookish things that always make me appreciate being in New York: BAM’s “Eat, Drink, and Be Literary” series, and the New York Public Library’s Live series. (Good food will usually do the trick, too.) BAM has the advantage of food, drink, and a more intimate venue, while NYPL has the upper hand on interviewing excellence–I simply love the way Paul Holdengräber engages his guests. A few days ago I went to hear him interview Umberto Eco, and from the moment they kicked things off by talking about books they haven’t read (à la Pierre Bayard), I remembered why I love being in a big city. The conversation was full of gems, and I particularly enjoyed thinking about the idea that hatred and stupidity are boundless, whereas love and truth are limited and predictable. (Love is exclusive, after all, and two plus two always equals four; whereas hatred can be shared and multiplied among any number of people, and the number of wrong answers to two plus two is limitless…)

Somewhere between declaring that the ability to lie sets humanity apart from animals, and avowing that “discombobulated” and “flabbergasted” are his two favorite words in English, Eco asserted the importance of contraints–rather than freedom–in the creative process. This is the essential idea of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle); while Eco is not a part of OuLiPo, he does have strong affinities with the group, as is evident from this event at the Louvre. The OuLiPo project has fascinated me since my first (or second?) year as a grad student, when my advisor, Warren Motte, introduced me to some of the group’s work. Deeply playful and rigorous, writers of OuLiPo embrace the role of form in the creative process to an unusual degree, setting arbitrary limits and rules on their work to see what comes out of it. One of my favorite examples is Jacques Jouet’s Poèmes du métro, in which each line was written between metro stops as he traveled along a pre-determined route that he had carefully mapped to maximize the metro stops that he visited while minimizing backtracking and repeats. Other writers, like Jacques Roubaud, rely on mathematical formulations to set constraints. Georges Perec famously wrote a novel without using the letter “e” (La disparition, 1990), then followed it up with a novel that used no vowels other than “e” (Les revenentes, 1997). Not all the works that are born of these constraints are fun to read, but the successes are truly magical.

I like the argument for limits quite a lot. I’ve seen it to be true personally with regards to my photography. I have a good camera and live in a photogenic city, but the times that I get the most interesting shots are when I have really specific assignments (like one, from a recent class, to capture blurry motion, silhouette, and deep depth of field in the same frame. This was one result of that task; here is another.) Freedom is not so useful in sparking creativity; set limits, though, and the creative mind comes to life. This is one reason I was interested in silence and the “unsayable” in my dissertation–what can more sharply limit language than silence? When writers work through and around silence, the results can be remarkable.

Returning to Eco after this OuLiPo rabbithole, I’ll mention that the only disappointment of the evening was nonetheless a substantial one. Closing out the interview, Holdengräber asked Eco, who professes to own 50,000 books, whether libraries have a role to play in the increasingly digital future. Eco responded that of course they do! They will be the museums for the lone copies of printed books; they will be like the tombs that preserve the mummified pharaohs.

Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about this very question, I am convinced that the future role of libraries has far less to do with the physical form of the book (much as I love my real books), and far more to do with the careful and dynamic curation of works in all their forms. I think libraries have the potential to become even more living and vibrant as the expertise of librarians comes to the forefront. Museums, tombs, dusty archives–I think these are absolutely the wrong images to have in mind as libraries adapt to a quickly changing environment. I wish there had been a bit more time for discussion after Eco made these remarks, because I would love to know Holdengräber’s reaction. His usual opening remarks reflect a desire to bring lightness and liveliness to a sometimes heavy institution, so I’d like to think that he would agree with me on this one.

This post touches on some topics related to my work at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, so I will note that all views are my own and should not be taken to represent the organization.

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4 thoughts on “Umberto Eco with Paul Holdengräber at NYPL Live

  1. Not identified with OuLiPo, but Alain Grandbois (without a doubt my favorite Quebec author) wrote a novella in one sentence in his book “Avant le chaos”. I would not want to be the graduate student who sets out to analyze the grammar for that one sentence.

    • The grammar can probably be parsed computationally by now… extracting the meaning, on the other hand, is a purely human (and intoxicating!) endeavor. I actually haven’t read any Grandbois but will be sure to pick something up now. Do you recommend “Avant le chaos” or something else for a first read?

      • I recommend “Avant le chaos,” since his other works are works of history or poetry. I also really enjoyed “Visages du monde,” in which he describes the places he has visited throughout the world, devoting a few pages to each. What I really like about him is that, contrary to many Quebec authors, he did not solely consider the French Canadian or Québécois experience. He had actually traveled and seen and experience other places. His writing is very humanistic as a consequence.

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