The Infinity of Lists Umberto Eco

Maclehose Press, pp.408, 35

When the Louvre invited me to organise for the whole of November 2009 a series of conferences, exhibitions, public readings, concerts, film projections and the like on the subject of my choice, I did not hesitate for a second and proposed the list.

Thus Umberto Eco on the genesis of this book, published simultaneously in Italian, French and English. Considering those parallel manifestations of the project, it was perhaps to be expected that this, its sole printed version, would be situated at the more ingratiatingly ludic end of the Eco spectrum. The Infinity of Lists is a work less of theory than of taxonomy. Flaunting his extraordinary erudition, but flaunting it modestly, if such an oxymoron is permissible, Eco basically draws up a list of lists, which he then proceeds to categorise, codify and exemplify under a capacious umbrella of rubrics: Lists of Places, Lists of Mirabilia, Excessive Lists, Incoherent Lists, Collections and Treasures, etc. Actually, in this specific context, ‘etc’ is as relevant to his propos as any word in the preceding sentence.

This is a bulging book about ‘etc’, about unsqueezable plenitude, frame-straining and paragraph-straining abundance. In fact, I’d be prepared to wager that the comma, that elementary punctuational unit of list-making, features here with rather greater frequency than in most other books of comparable length.

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Much of one’s enjoyment derives from the quoted lists themselves. Some should be familiar to British readers — the opening chapter of Bleak House (‘Fog…’, etc), Kipling’s ‘If’, the Song of Songs, Borges’ bestiary of real and imaginary creatures (‘those that tremble as if they were mad; innumerable ones; those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush’, etc), John of Gaunt’s ‘This England’ speech from Richard II, even Gargantua’s fabulous inventory of bottom-wiping methods.

Many others are probably not. I personally had never read Hesiod’s Theogony or the American poet Edgar Lee Masters’ folksy Spoon River Anthology or Rubén Darío’s Canto a la Argentina or the Polish Nobelist Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Possibilities’ (‘I prefer exceptions./I prefer to leave early./I prefer talking to doctors about something else.’, etc), not to mention lots and lots of others.

Of necessity, the longest list of all, of course, is that of omissions. Among the visual lists (the book is gorgeously illustrated), I was especially surprised by the absence of M. C. Escher, the Dutch-born graphic artist whose images of endlessly diminishing birds, fish and lizards, the tiniest of them bunched up at the edges of the picture frame, constitute a remarkable approximation of the counter- intuitive results obtained by adding up an infinite series of fractions (e.g. 1+1/2+1/4+ 1/8+1/16 … equals not infinity but 2).

Oddly, too, there are no nursery rhymes. Theatre is represented solely (I think: it’s hard keeping up with this book) by Cyrano de Bergerac’s paeon to his own nose, music by Ravel’s Boléro and film by one of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic routines (though there’s nothing on Peter Greenaway, whose work Eco must know — since he knows everything — but may not much care for).

Even if Eco offers a continuous stream of aperçus on themes as disparate as the sickly preservation of ‘mystically repugnant’ relics, Russell’s paradox of self-referentiality (which means that there’s at least one book that Borges’ supposedly infinite library can never contain — the catalogue of books which don’t refer to themselves), the verbal bulimia of Joyce, the fad for cabinets of curiosities, the incompatibility of sculpture and list- making, the poetical list versus the practical list and whether, without contextual evidence, one can actually tell them apart — he arrives at a single overarching conclusion: that, beyond a certain normative level, where what the writer gives you is all you need to know, the pleasure of the list, for the reader, is that of gluttony. Lists are fun because, always assuming we possess the right sort of patience (some readers just skip them), we can gorge on them to our heart’s delight.

A final point on the book itself. It’s a beautiful object (if a little heavy to handle in bed). Its creamy pages are a pleasure to turn, its various typefaces are not just elegant but appropriate to the needs of the text, its illustrations a joy to study, its translation (to my ear) impeccable. It may well be that, in the near future, digital reading technologies will become not just the norm but an increasingly sophisticated norm. For the moment, however, The Infinity of Lists, sumptuous yet unpresumptuous, is the perfect anti-Kindle.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Anthology, Architecture, Art, Artists, Curiosities, History, Non-fiction