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.
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.
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.