Book review: This Is Not The End Of The Book

This Is Not The End Of The Bookby Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, Translated by Polly McLeanHarvill Secker, 320pp, £14.99

Who knew they still made them like this? "Leaves from my Library" and "Chats with a Bookman" was one of the great Edwardian genres, countless examples still cluttering up the dimmer second-hand bookshops. Yet here's a brand new addition to this apparently clapped-out form, "a conversation about the past, present and future, curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac", between the celebrated novelist Umberto Eco and the distinguished screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrire.

The pair met for "several sessions in their two homes" for a good old chinwag, conducted, one can only hope, over some serious port and walnuts. Both are out-and-out bibliophiles, serious collectors. Towards the end, they get round to comparing sizes. Umberto has 50,000 books in his various homes, plus 1,200 rare titles, while Jean-Claude owns up to 30,000-40,000, of which 2,000 are ancient. There's lots of burbling about bindings and provenance and how best to arrange one's library.

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In playful mode, they speculate about which book they would rescue if the house were on fire. For Umberto, it's probably Bernhard von Breydenbach's Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam, Spier (1490), for its wonderful illustrated plates on several folded pages; for Jean-Claude, it's "an Alfred Jarry manuscript, as well as one by Andr Breton, and a book by Lewis Carroll that contains a letter he wrote".

This entire world of bookmanship was best expressed for me in a satirical letter from Philip Larkin to Kingsley Amis (24.9.46): "How refreshing to contrast the organ notes of Milton with the sonorous aphorisms and noble despair of the worthy Sam Johnson! And to weigh the rough stone of Dryden against the ardent ore of Jack Donne? It makes an old 'carl' such as I wish for four eyes, that I could read TWO BOOKS AT ONCE!!!!"

At one point, Eco and Carrire happily agree that having lots of books is beneficial even if you don't read them. "Perhaps you've had an experience like this," suggests Jean-Claude agreeably. "I often walk into one of the rooms where I keep my books simply to look at them, without touching a single one. It feeds me in a way I can't explain."

Umberto can go one better, though. Democratically, he suggests the same kick can be had, even from books you don't own, just by sniffing. "It can happen in a public library, or even a large bookshop. Which of us hasn't drawn sustenance from the simple smell of the books on the shelves, despite them not belonging to us?"

Jean-Philippe de Tonnac has "curated" these blitherings in only the loosest of senses, perhaps cracking the walnuts as well as passing the port, since the book is full of extraordinary howlers. Drivelling on about Shakespeare, Jean-Claude tells us very few of his plays were published during his lifetime (not true, 18 were) and that it was only a long time after his death (seven years?) "that they were collected together and published in what is now called the Folio and considered the first edition. The holy of holies, naturally. Do any copies of that edition still exist, I wonder?" For a book-lover, even a French one, this is astounding ignorance. (There are 228 First Folios known to be in existence, of which 40 are complete, one having been sold at Sotheby's for 2.5 million as recently as 2006.)

In short, This is Not the End of the Book is a singularly bad piece of book-making. Ironically. Or just pathetically. And that's a pity because the book's main contention is probably valid. The formats of new media have so far proved ephemeral - floppy discs, videotapes and CD-ROMs have already been superseded, leaving the material supposedly preserved on them increasingly hard to retrieve. Books have proved more durable. "We can still read a text printed five centuries ago". The book cannot be bettered, Eco claims. "The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved."

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Aldus Manutius published the first pocket book, an edition of Virgil, in 1501. "As far as I can tell," Eco says again, "a more efficient way of transporting information remains to be found. Even the mega-gigabyte computer still needs to be plugged in." But these days there are computers and e-books that don't need to be plugged in. This is not a closely reasoned argument.

Still, they're right: the book is not dead yet by a long way. But with friends like Umberto and Jean-Claude, books need no enemies. The e-book of this hapless farrago costs, the same as the hardback. Doubtless it'll be discounted soon, and then deleted.