Book World: Michael Dirda reviews 'Infinity of Lists' by Umberto Eco

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, January 14, 2010; C10


By Umberto Eco

Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen

Rizzoli. 408 pp. $45


These past few weeks have been, to paraphrase Keats, the season of lists and mellow fruitfulness, a time of extravagance, overabundance and desperation. In the heady days before Christmas, children write to Santa Claus enclosing Homeric catalogues of the toys and games they pine for. To send out holiday greetings grown-ups consult the blackened pages of old address books -- or call up the alphabetized contacts database on their computers. All through December, parents scurry through malls, clutching scraps of paper upon which are scribbled sizes, brand names and crucial details about color and price. In grocery stores, shoppers methodically check off the exotic foodstuffs needed for the seasonal feasting. And then, after the desperate gaiety of New Year's Eve, everyone pauses for a moment, peers down with horror at the number on the bathroom scale and adds the usual item to the New Year's resolutions.

Oh, "the infinity of lists," as scholar and novelist Umberto Eco titles this handsome album! Only the very young or very feckless manage to escape from the inexorable dictates of schedules, calendars, in-boxes, deadlines, memoranda. Without them, how would we ever manage to get our work done on time, or be sure that there's food in the cupboard, or that our checkbook balances, or that all our children's friends are invited to the birthday party? Lists are everywhere in our lives -- even in the opening paragraphs of book reviews.

In his new book, Eco -- best known for his medieval mystery "The Name of the Rose," but also a distinguished expert on semiotics, the study of verbal and nonverbal communication -- focuses on the catalogue in literature and the representation of superabundance in painting. He does note how some music, such as Ravel's "Bolero" with "its obsessive rhythms," suggests "that it could continue infinitely." But for the most part, Eco sticks to poets, novelists and painters, seeking to interpret the implications of lists and inventories, to reflect on the clearly finite and the sometimes apparently infinite.

In one of my favorite chapters, Eco describes rhetorical devices, or tropes, used in listmaking, such as asyndeton, the avoidance of conjunctions. For example, I left out "and" when speaking of "schedules, calendars, in-boxes, deadlines, memoranda." Asyndeton conveys the impression that a series could go on forever. In my immediately following sentence, I employed polysyndeton, in which a conjunction -- in this case "or" -- appears between each activity mentioned. Such repetition creates a feeling of almost naive breathlessness or awe, as if the writer, overwhelmed by the number of choices, can only point to an item there and another here and still another over there and . . .

"The Infinity of Lists" doesn't only contain Eco's reflections. It's also a companion to his work at the Louvre Museum as a visiting scholar and curator. As a result, the book is packed with full-color illustrations, mostly paintings depicting crowded battle scenes, the multitude of the heavenly host, innumerable flowers in fields or vases, a library's shelf after shelf of book after book. One double-page spread is filled by Andy Warhol's not quite identical Campbell's soup cans.

To complement these pictorial lists, Eco also includes catalogue arias from the Bible, Rabelais, Walt Whitman, Victor Hugo, James Joyce and many other writers. Consider, for instance, the wonderfully "incongruous" list found in a Chinese encyclopedia invented by the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. There the world's animals are divided into "(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies."

Given his association with the Louvre, Eco naturally discusses the hodgepodge of artifacts zealously collected by connoisseurs, museums and medieval churches. "In St. Vitus' Cathedral, in Prague, you can find the craniums of St. Adalbert and St. Wenceslas, St. Stephen's sword, a fragment of the Cross, the table cloth used for the Last Supper, one of St. Margaret's teeth, a fragment of St. Vitalius' shinbone, one of St. Sophia's ribs, St. Eoban's chin, Moses' rod, the Virgin's dress." By the way, note the repeated use of asyndeton in the previous two paragraphs.

Though "The Infinity of Lists" covers a great deal of ground, its various chapters are all too brief -- and thus tantalize more often than not. One hungers for further detail, greater amplification. When, for instance, Eco alludes to the pleasure of reading good book catalogues, he abruptly stops short just when we expect to learn how the critic Mario Praz found pleasure in "even uninteresting catalogues." Moreover, shouldn't there be some discussion of the Renaissance art of memory, which allowed impossibly long lists and texts to be learned by heart, or much more about that perennial element of love poetry, the "laudatio puellae," the detailed praise of the beloved woman's body from top to toe?

Eco obviously recognizes how much he's left out and admits in his introduction that this mixture of essay, anthology and illustrated catalogue "cannot but end with an etcetera." Still, if hardly definitive, "The Infinity of Lists" is nonetheless a superb sampler, with something instructive or amusing on every page -- and plenty of examples of the charm and shock accompanying any good list. "You must sympathize," say the innocent country girls in Italo Calvino's novel "The Nonexistent Knight." "Apart from religious services, tridua, novenas, work in the fields, threshing, the vintage, the whipping of servants, incest, fires, hangings, invading armies, sack, rape, and pestilence, we have seen nothing." Of course, these girls do live sheltered lives.

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