Serendipities : language & lunacy

by Umberto Eco

Paperback, 1999




San Diego : Harcourt Brace, 1999.


Serendipities is a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, a brilliant exposition of how unanticipated truths often spring from false ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Umberto Eco offers a dazzling tour of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange to make sense of the world. Uncovering layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, Eco offers with wit and clarity such instances as Columbus's voyage to the New World, the fictions that grew around the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar, and the linguistic endeavors to recreate the language of Babel, to show how serendipities can evolve out of mistakes. With erudition, anecdotes, and scholarly rigor, this new collection of essays is sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member princemuchao
Eco starts out strong with the essay The Force of Falsity, easily the best selection in this collection of five articles on serendipity and language. Unfortunately, the essays that follow it become tedious and will probably not be very interesting to anyone that is not schooled thoroughly in linguistics.

In The Force of Falsity Eco points out that falsity, as well as truth, has shaped the world in important ways, using many interesting examples including Columbus, Prester John and the Rosicrucians.

Languages in Paradise is an essay examining Dante’s beliefs about the language of Adam and the effects of Babel upon it. I can’t imagine a popular audience finding this interesting, or even wholly comprehensible.

Things become more interesting again with the essay From Marco Polo to Leibniz. Returning to the titular topic, he discusses again how cross- language/culture misunderstandings often produced serendipitous results

The final two essays are criticisms of linguistic academics – one pertaining to Foigny’s burlesque perfect language and the final deeply critical of Joseph De Maistre’s linguistics.

I can’t recommend this book to anyone who is not studying linguistics. If you are a huge fan of Eco’s nonfiction, I suggest you read the first and third essays and skim the others to see if anything catches your interest.
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LibraryThing member bragan
A collection of essays about various historical ideas on the subject of language. The first essay, "The Force of Falsity" is actually about false ideas which have had significant impacts on history and culture in general, but that certainly applies to a lot of the language-related concepts he talks about in the rest of the book. The second, "Languages in Paradise," is mostly about the search for the language supposedly spoken by Adam in the Garden of Eden, with particular attention to what Dante had to say on the subject. Number three, "From Marco Polo to Leibniz," is about European misconceptions about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese pictograms. Number four, "The Language of the Austral Land," looks at the idea of artificial languages constructed so as to be self-evidently based on the logic of reality, mainly by means of examining a parody version. And the last, "The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre" is a detailed takedown of one particular person's mystical view of the origin and evolution of language.

It's kind of an odd little book, really. Eco doesn't seem especially interested in giving a broad overview of his topic, but rather on poking into the specific little corners of it that interest him. It is, on the whole, probably a bit more detailed, dense and scholarly than I'd have preferred. I found that whenever his topic was something I already had some familiarity with, I got a fair bit out of it and appreciated Eco's thoughts and insights, and whenever he touched on subjects I had little knowledge of, I got a little lost.
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LibraryThing member danielbeattie
Not a bad little book. 5 essays about the quest for the language of paradise. The essay on Dante was particularly interesting. Only for the linguistically inclined.
LibraryThing member millata
Every time I pick up one of Eco's books I'm surprised just how different they are from each other. I've been disappointed so many times by authors who seem to have something to say and then end up repeating the same things over and over again book after book. I'm not an expert on history or literature but at least to a regular reader simply the amount of knowledge that Eco seems to have on the subjects he writes about, down to the smallest details, is amazing.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Interesting little book of Eco's lectures on language and some historical concepts. They vary in quality, but still are worth looking at if you have the time.
LibraryThing member jonfaith
Somewhere in an earlier Alomodovar film, maybe Flower of the Secret, a character describes a scenario for a film, one which actually A would eventually create as Volver. I really like that, the inclusion. Eco anticipates his Cemetery of Prague with a devilish delight in this one, little surprise as nearly all of PC, outside of the protagonist, is grounded in historical evidence. I liked this dizzying book, though the final section did leave me grasping, if not gasping.… (more)
LibraryThing member JasonRiedy
I'm an academic. Some of these are derived from his lectures? I strive to attain Eco's level of scholarship.
LibraryThing member palaverofbirds
As exciting as semiotics can get! Eco is both a story-teller and a scholar, and in everything I've read by him there's a little of both regardless if the work is fiction or non-fiction.


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