A collective memory of the world itself

BOOKS / How books represent a collective world memory, as described through the vast collection of Umberto Eco.

Internationally premiered in competition of FIPADOC, the brand new film portrait of Umberto Eco is comprehensive, simultaneously serious and lighthearted, enacting of the genre. It approaches the author’s world with a standard overview of his works and their major themes from a perspective of his library of books and manuscripts, carefully collected throughout decades of wide-reaching intellectual activity. The kernel of the library is not, as one would expect, the works of one of the widely acclaimed minds in human history, but – entirely in Eco’s playful and sophisticated style – the books of obscure, vastly forgotten 17th and 18th-century European intellectuals, creating countless, elaborate, and far from scientific truth explanations of the world’s phenomena in a spirit of occultism, alchemy, magic, chemistry, geometry, or algebra.

Umberto Eco A Library of the World
Umberto Eco – A Library of the World, a film by Davide Ferrario

The world itself

Why is it interesting? Why would the world’s acclaimed university professor and author of multiple fabulously popular novels engage in and painstakingly collect those rarely remembered and read by even the most learned philologists? What is in a failed intellectual effort of past centuries worth the time and attention to investigate? For Umberto Eco, the library is a metaphor for the world itself, a symbol of the collective memory of God even in the tradition of ages-long scholarship and hermeneutics. After Dante and Borges, he perceives the library as the beginning and the source of knowledge, as a labyrinth of the human mind attempting to grasp reality in its many dimensions. It is the material memory of humankind, of which – paradoxically – some of the books printed 500 years ago are easier to access than a text saved on a computer floppy disc 20 years ago (that is, if anyone still remembers what this predecessor of the CD was). For the last 30 years, our works and messages have been saved in multiple and constantly changing formats, and languages of programming, which are chronically transient – even the internet pages of the 2000s are hardly readable now, being written in an «ancient» HTML.

The messages and works are increasingly fleeting not only in content but also in terms of their dissemination. They instantly multiply and reach out to recipients through various channels and are similarly instantly forgotten. None memorize anymore. It would have been unbearable if anyone had been conscious of the whole content of the world-wide-web, like a character in one of Borges’ stories – Funes – who remembers every little thing that ever happened to him and hence is going mad, unable to stand it. The function of memory is then to preserve and select what to keep and what to forget. Indiscriminate remembering and keeping everything in our public life would make thinking and making sense very difficult, if not wholly impossible. The growing responsibility of our modern times seems to be – contrary to the past centuries when people engaged in gathering more and more knowledge and information – the selection and erasure of as much unnecessary data as possible. Preservation of only the chosen elements is also a base for common knowledge, making a sole act of communication possible. We can understand each other only based on shared information – we can hardly communicate with the believers in a flat Earth.

For Umberto Eco, the library is a metaphor for the world itself, a symbol of the collective memory of God even in the tradition of ages-long scholarship and hermeneutics.


The internet’s characteristic hypertext, text, paratext, and epitext, widely discussed in semiology and media theory, are not a novelty of our times, though. Here we can partly see reasons for fascination with the old manuscripts, full of incredible creations of the human mind – like the 1714 book of over 600 pages, learned commentary on a few-versed folk song. Full of quotations and allusions to the ancient masters, the commentary creates its own world, the meta-text for which a humble chant is just a pretext. Although the carrier of the text is different, its content is not too far from various contemporary theories, as it reveals the workings of intellect creating abstract constructions of meaning on a basis of elements and connections, which often are either inaccurate or far from the truth. What is currently becoming the most important task of a learned person is then discerning the truthfulness and legitimacy of a message.

For Umberto Eco being human means telling stories, and a reading means being alive. We live with stories. They guide us and explain the world. The old books, full of fantastic definitions and descriptions of foreign lands and languages, animals, and energies shaping the world, and what’s more, are also full of fascinating pictures, diagrams, figures, and graphs. They show meandering lines of thinking and bear many similarities to contemporary media creations. For Eco, the strength of the language is not to tell «what’s there, but to describe what is not there.» In our past and present world, imaginary characters have sometimes been more vivid and influential than actual ones. A lie, a fake, forgery, programmed misinformation, and conspiracy theories have been at the root of every criminal movement in human history and were there long before social media dominated the landscape. Searching for meaning only sometimes corresponds with reality. It’s vital for the philosophy to grapple with the question «how one perceives reality?» and – consequently – «does reality really exist?»

Umberto Eco A Library of the World
Umberto Eco – A Library of the World, a film by Davide Ferrario

In silence

It is, in a way, comforting to realize, thanks to Umberto Eco’s light and knowledgeable excursions into corners of human fantasies and ways of storytelling, that although we do currently live through astonishing, overwhelmingly new overload of information, and impulses reaching out to us from various sources, we can still scoop some guidance from even a most distant past – we just need to look for it patiently, best in silence and – perhaps – in a good library revealing the hidden worlds.

Umberto Eco – A Library of the World screens as part of the 2023 FIPADOC International Documentary Competition.

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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