Serendipities by Umberto Eco
Language and Lunacy

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With its typographical eccentricities and endless inventories, Serendipities gives an impression of inaccessibility. Eco’s erudition is impossibly showy (ostentation is the game of his prose) and obscure information lies dense on the page.
-Guardian

Synopsis

Best-selling author Umberto Eco's latest work unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the "Force of the False," Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus's assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously "discovering" America. The fictions that grew up around the cults of the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar were the result of a letter from a mysterious "Prester John"—undoubtedly a hoax—that provided fertile ground for a series of delusions and conspiracy theories based on religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices. While some false tales produce new knowledge (like Columbus's discovery of America) and others create nothing but horror and shame (the Rosicrucian story wound up fueling European anti-Semitism) they are all powerfully persuasive.

In a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, Eco shows us how serendipities—unanticipated truths—often spring from mistaken ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Eco tours the labyrinth of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange.

Eco uncovers a rich history of linguistic endeavor—much of it ill-conceived—that sought to "heal the wound of Babel." Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Egyptian were alternately proclaimed as the first language that God gave to Adam, while—in keeping with the colonial climate of the time—the complex language of the Amerindians in Mexico was viewed as crude and diabolical. In closing, Eco considers the erroneous notion of linguistic perfection and shrewdly observes that the dangers we face lie not in the rules we use to interpret other cultures but in our insistence on making these rules absolute.

With the startling combination of erudition and wit, bewildering anecdotes and scholarly rigor that are Eco's hallmarks, Serendipities is sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.
 

About Umberto Eco

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Eco is a professor at the University of Bologna, where he runs its Program for Communication Sciences, and he continues to write a weekly column for L'Espresso called "La bustina di Minerva. His recently published works include Foucault's Pendulum (Harvest Books 2007) and The Island of the Day Before (Harvest Books 2006).
 
Published November 5, 1998 by Columbia University Press. 128 pages
Genres: Education & Reference, Literature & Fiction, Political & Social Sciences, Law & Philosophy, History, Religion & Spirituality. Non-fiction
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Guardian

Below average
Reviewed by Ian Thomson on Feb 06 1999

With its typographical eccentricities and endless inventories, Serendipities gives an impression of inaccessibility. Eco’s erudition is impossibly showy (ostentation is the game of his prose) and obscure information lies dense on the page.

Read Full Review of Serendipities: Language and L... | See more reviews from Guardian

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