When Umberto Eco died last year at the age of 84, he left behind a sizable body of work and a vast collection of books. He wrote such hefty and much-read novels as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum as well as stories for children, pieces of literary criticism, academic texts on semiotics, studies of everything from medieval aesthetics to modern media, and much else besides, but as we recently noted, he also advised against becoming too prolific. Not for him the life of “those novelists who publish a book every year,” thus missing out on the “pleasure of spending six, seven, eight years to tell a story.”
Still, the man wrote a lot. He also read a lot, as a glance at a chapter or two from any one of his own novels will attest. An avowed fan of James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges, Eco wove into his work countless threads pulled from the literary and intellectual history of a host of different places, cultures, and languages — evidence of a well-stocked mind indeed, but a well-stocked mind requires a well-stocked library, or libraries.
We can only imagine how many such citadels of knowledge Eco visited in his travels all over the world, but we don’t have to imagine the one he built himself, since we can see it in the video above. Though not infinite like the library of all possible books imagined by Borges, Eco’s private home library looks, from certain angles, nearly as big. The camera follows Eco as he passes shelf after packed shelf, some lining the walls and others standing free, eventually finding his way to one volume in particular — despite the fact that he apparently shelved very few of his books with their spines facing outward.
According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, quoted by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, Eco’s library contained 30,000 books and tended to separate visitors into two categories: ‘those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?’ and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.” By that measure, Eco might have amassed an even more valuable library than his fans would assume.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.