Best-selling author, semiotician, and scholar Umberto Eco is a literary Renaissance man. He’s also a passionate and witty commentator on topics of the day. In November Harcourt will publish Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, a collection of Eco’s essays and columns for Italian newspapers, while Rizzoli is releasing On Ugliness, a provocative follow-up to his 2004 History of Beauty.
Q: Your essays look at post-9/11 issues—war, terror, torture, religion—in a historical context. What’s the concept behind Turning Back the Clock?
A: My title is meant to be ironic, but it is also clear that we have gone back, in many ways, to pre–World War I Europe. We have shifted from the Cold War to new "hot" wars. Looking at Afghanistan, for instance, one gets the uncanny sensation of returning to 19th-century colonial wars, with the same devastating effects.
Q: This book is also an indictment of the manipulations by certain world leaders. How susceptible are we now to the deceptions of politicians and the media?
A: Media populism, as I call it, is a permanent risk in an age in which even politics has become show business. We must invent new antidotes in order to save democracy in the electronic era.
Q: Last year Nobel-winning playwright Dario Fo made a brief bid for mayor in Milan. Would you consider running for office?
A: Being a great artist or thinker doesn’t necessarily translate into being a great political leader. Plato proved a disastrous politician. I have always said that a philosopher or writer shouldn’t aim for power but rather intellectual influence.
New in Translation
Only the great Argentine author Julio Cortázar could turn a road trip from Paris to Marseilles into a surreal expedition. But then Cortázar, best known for his fantastical short stories and the experimental novel Hopscotch, brought a jazzy, mythic air to everything he wrote. This fall Archipelago Books is publishing a long overdue English translation of his final work, Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. A collaboration with his third wife, Carol Dunlop, it’s an irresistible compendium of doodles, musings, and fantasies from the couple’s quixotic 1982 journey aboard a VW van they dubbed The Dragon.
Striking It Richly
Perhaps no book this fall offers the pure fun of Light of India (Ten Speed Press), an exuberant survey of Indian matchbox covers from the late 19th century through the fifties. Edited by California collector and pop culture historian Warren Dotz, it features some 300 eye-popping images and comes in a slipcase with a match-striking strip on the spine. Got a light?
Kurt Thometz, New York
Harlem is swinging again and bookseller Kurt Thometz is perfectly placed to watch it happen. Since 2005 Thometz, 54, has run Jumel Terrace Books on West 160th Street in Sugar Hill, just across cobblestoned streets from the historic Morris-Jumel Mansion. An advisor to Leonard Lauder, S. I. Newhouse, and Felix Rohatyn on their libraries, Thometz specializes in collectible books on local history and the African diaspora. Here are a few titles the bibliophile and raconteur extraordinaire has been reading—and rereading—lately. jumelterracebooks.com
A Rage in Harlem By Chester Himes (Vintage Books)"Himes’s hard-boiled negritude noirs, set in Harlem in the fifties and sixties, are hard bop on the page. This one, from 1957, even features Louis Micheaux’s classic 125th Street bookstore, the House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda."
The Seven Storey Mountain By Thomas Merton (Harvest Books) "Merton’s 1948 book is a great reprieve from the material world, a prose prayer in print and arguably the finest spiritual autobiography of the past century."
Things Fall Apart By Chinua Achebe (Penguin Books)"If you only read one book on Africa or colonialism, this is it. Using English Igbo, a West African language that defies print, Achebe’s 1958 novel tells the story of a millennium-old civilization becoming the stuff of nostalgia overnight."
Asphalt: A Novel By Carl Hancock Rux (Washington Square Press) "What Langston Hughes was to the Harlem Renaissance of the 20th century, Rux is to the 21st. I also admire his novels ’Talk’ [Theatre Communications Group] and ’Pagan Operetta’ [Fly by Night Press]."