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Serendipities: Language and lunacy

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  940 ratings  ·  58 reviews
The multitalented Umberto Eco--novelist, critic, and literary theorist--turns his attention to the history of linguistics. In linguistics, as in the other sciences, Eco explains, there are serendipities: "Even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious." In his earlier ...more
Paperback, 163 pages
Published 1999 by Orion Books (first published 1998)
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Riku Sayuj

The Force of Falsity

Eco illustrates through multiple examples on what tenuous grounds much of our accepted history of today stands. What we believe, exists. And the belief outweighs the actual existence, or lack thereof.

Each of these stories/examples have a virtue: as narratives, they seem genuinely plausible, more than everyday or historical reality, which is far more complex and less credible. The stories seemed to explain something that was otherwise hard to understand. Hard to understand wit
Oct 17, 2008 lisa_emily rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: linguctuals
Recommended to lisa_emily by: mic
I read this book because a friend gave it to me- he had an extra copy- and I wanted to read more Eco, (or at least another book by Eco, as so far I have read only one) this one looked thin and non-intimidating. If you have not read his "The Search for the Perfect Language", this little book of essays may seem as though it is coming from left field, since all the essays deal with the search for the original language and the degenerate manifestations of the so-called original language. You may als ...more
Simon Mcleish
Originally published on my blog here in October 2000.

Some of Eco's essays in semiotics (those in Travels in Hyperreality, for example), are to me fairly impenetrable. The five in this collection are not like that. Concentrating on aspects of the history of linguistic thought, they show a wide ranging and brilliant mind, but are written in a lass academic style. (It was the vast array of references to writers that I had never read that was daunting.) They read more like they are notes related to
The main theme running through the essays in Umberto Eco’s Serendipities is that false or deluded or distorted (or even just plain crazy) ideas can change the world just as significantly as ideas that are true. And like ideas that are true, these ideas can change the world in positive or negative ways. The medieval belief in a vast Christian kingdom in the east, ruled by Prester John, was completely false but it was a major stimulus to European exploration and expansion. He also has some stimula ...more
Yesterday's Muse Bookstore
Another solid performance by Eco, though I don't think this book delivers what it advertises. What is supposed to tie together the five essays is a theme of mistakes that led to success, or ill-founded projects that facilitated great progress. I would say the first three essays are more successful than the final two in this regard, and also more enjoyable to read. They seem to have more of Eco's trademark flare for humor, and they seem to say what they intend to say more effectively.

I understand
Serendipities felt like little bits left over from the writing of The Search for the Perfect Language , which in a sense is what it is (in the introduction to Serendipities Eco writes 'In the introduction to my Search for a Perfect Language (1995), I informed the reader that, bearing in mind the physical limits of a book, I had been forced to omit many curious episodes, and I concluded: "I console myself that I have the material for future excursions in erudition"').

This work, although on one l
This book is a collection of essays by scholar and all-around smart guy Umberto Eco. The first one is a fascinating look at made-up European myths, such as secret Christian / Masonic societies (Templars, the Illuminati, etc.) and how these things which are clearly made up bullshit (Rosicrucians are all invisible? come on) often have very real results. It's an essay about the sociological conception of self-fulfilling prophecies. More notably, it seems to be roughly the idea that was turned into ...more
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.
Eco is fast becoming a favorite. This small gem was right up my alley/s -- and is happily ensconced in my core library.
I think Umberto Eco is writing for an audience more erudite than I here. This book does not try to cater to lay people and you really do need to have some interest in linguistics to even begin to enjoy it. That said, it is less dry and dreary than I expected.

The five short essays, while decidedly academic, are interesting with a touch of humour (I liked Eco's contemplation on the language that would be spoken were Dante, Abulafia and Adam to convene in heaven) and cover the various aspects of l
second reading: january 2010. omgosh! U. Eco is such a fine writer. the purpose of this particular book is to show how soooo much advancement in human culture BEGINS with wrong thinking. we have to start "somewhere" so the wrong starting point doesn't have to mean the wrong path/conclusion but this method does have to acknowledge necessary corrections along the way ... and in this post-modern world where "anything goes" this book reminds us -- with excellent examples and clear thinking/good writ ...more
This book is so terrible that I don't even feel remotely bad for abandoning it about 30 pages in. Frankly, those 30 pages were a waste of my time, and I'm only glad to have read them because I can now write this review. This book represented my first foray into the smoky and confusing world of Umberto Eco (not counting a few failed attempts to get past page 1 of The Name of the Rose over the years), and I hope never to return.

The first problem is that no one knows what this book is about, not ev
Jafer Martin
Warning: this book is heavy on linguistic theory. He starts with the premise that serendipitious discoveries can happen from false ideas, then jumps straight into the debate of sacred "given" languages vs. everyday imperfect working dialects and the nature of linguistic change. I think the reason he sticks with the linguistic angle is just because so much of cognitive thought is contained by the internal grammar it's produced in. This leads towards the end of the book to "lexical borrowing", or ...more
Umberto Eco, like the inventors of "perfect languages" he describes, takes language to be the ultimate metaphor for every system (political, philosophical, religious) mankind can aspire to cobble together. This allows him at the end for calling Joseph de Maistre (who did indeed despise the French Revolution) a "reactionary" for claiming that "The only certainty is that every people people has spoken, and it has spoken precisely insofar as it thought; in fact it would be absurd to believe that th ...more
We know about the power of true ideas to effect change. But what about the power of false ideas? In this fascinating short work, Umberto Eco (author of novels including The Name of the Rose, and in addition Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna) examines some of the great wrong-headed ideas of previous centuries and the influence they have had. There's the vision of the Christian kingdom of Prester John beyond the Arab world; the belief in the original perfect language, or the atte ...more
A very interesting & intriguing series of essays (and lecture notes) which will hopefully entertain & enlighten those with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.

Not always easy on the lay reader (as those familiar with Eco's previous works will doubtless attest) and my bi-ceps certainly remember getting a good work-out lifting my faithful Dictionary on a regular basis - although hopefully my vocabulary (and dinner party conversation) is the better for it!

In fact, many
Guillermo Pérez
Very interesting book, perhaps too much detail in some of the arguments but it does make its point. Some interesting developments in the history of sciences and human advancements as well as philosophical insights were motivated by idiotic reasons. The result, nonetheless, is our present day civilization!
Tom Dale
Having struggled to get beyond the first section of this book for what is alarmingly revealed to me by Goodreads as all but a year, and then having completed it in the space of a day or two, my conclusion is this:
this is not a book to read last thing at night, first thing on a sunday morning, when drunk, ill or exhausted, irritated by children, employers or clients, or in any other way distractable from what is without doubt a mental task of no small order.

Eco is rarely light reading and this
I'm not quite sure how to rate this one. It had a bunch of very interesting arguments that make for excellent discussions with a willing sparring partner, and then at times it dipped into some exercises in pointlessness that had me throwing it down in frustration. Eco seems to believe in biblical inerrancy and Dante Inerrancy (or not, I couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic), so there went a lot of credibility for me.

Nobody needs to read this, but if the subject interests you and you can get p
A.K. Klemm
I love Umberto Eco wholly and completely and always:
David R.
Eco's day job is professor of Semiotics at Bologna University, and this book (a set of five lectures) shows him to fine effect. However, it lies at a significant level of academic prose and the subject can be suprisingly difficult to fully grasp. I'm assuming I would need three or four passes to do so, reminding me of my struggle with Hofstedler's "Godel Escher Bach" many years ago. That said, I came away with some perspective on both "falsity" (in its sense of how culture progressed in the teet ...more
This book is a compilation of lectures presented by Eco over a few years, so despite pretty quality editing, it doesn't quite flow together as a book. On the other hand, Eco is absolutely brilliant, so even a mildly disjointed series of his thoughts makes for stupendous reading. My main complaint was that his editor overestimated me as a reader. The text abounds with foreign-language phrases (primarily Latin) with no translations or footnotes to help me along. I don't think that I risked believi ...more
I have no idea! Not really insightful.
Heather Browning
I found this extremely difficult to get through, particularly the first couple of chapters, and I almost gave up. If it hadn't been such a short book, I may have. The writing style is difficult to follow - crammed with detail to the point where it's easy to forget or overlook the broader point he is trying to make. Rather than really exploring any of the ideas he presents, Eco seems to prefer to survey the history of them. Perhaps it's just my inclinations as a philosopher rather than a historia ...more
Aug 15, 2007 Jessica rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in semiotics
A history of linguistics that is maybe not meant for the layman. Interesting and dense, but sometimes difficult to follow, especially if you bought it without paying much attention and while thinking that you were getting (and hoped to get) Eco's Misreadings for a light in-flight read. Eco makes a habit in all of his writing of using large chunks of text in a variety of languages without offering translations.

Chapter 3 : From Marco Polo to Leibniz: Stories if Intellectual Misunderstandings, was
Eva Nickelson
I freely admit that most of this book was over my head. I have an interest in languages in the sense that I use a limited language set to convey ideas. There were a plethora of philosophers and writers that were mentioned (Borges being one that I have actually read), and while I may have missed quite a bit by not reading more of them, Eco conveys the different theories about where our languages originate and what purpose they both help and hinder in our beliefs of the world. It was definitely a ...more
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.
Some of the chapters were really interesting, but some is recycled and the translation is not always ok.
Brent Legault
I liked the language and loved the lunacy, but I wish it were a real, cohesive book, rather than a bunch of pieced-together essays and speeches. The incessant summarizing of information already addressed drove me half as mad (though not nearly so brilliant) as some of the babbling savants within.
As usually - Eco is at once entertaining and intellectually engaging. This is a collection of essays focused mostly on language, from the point of view of philosophy and semiotics, with a Medieval touch (also check his book titled "The Search for the Perfect Language")
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Umberto Eco is an Italian writer of fiction, essays, academic texts, and children's books, and certainly one of the finest authors of the twentieth century. A professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Eco’s brilliant fiction is known for its playful use of language and symbols, its astonishing array of allusions and references, and clever use of puzzles and narrative inventions. His per ...more
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