Coyle's Reviews > History of Beauty

History of Beauty by Umberto Eco
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's review
Mar 09, 2012

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bookshelves: political-theory-modern
Read from March 09 to 21, 2012

Really a 3 1/2 star book, but since that's not an option...

This book is misnamed, really "dictionary of Beauty" would be a closer title, while "Umberto Eco's Musings on Beauty in a loosely chronological order with occasionaly quotes about beauty from other thinkers and a boatload of pictures" would probably hit closest to home. Undoubtedly the publisher shot that title down and stuck History of Beauty in its place.

Strengths: Each individual section is fairly informative and interesting to read. There are a lot of useful and interesting art prints, quotes that I likely would never otherwise have encountered, and thoughtful reflections on the various periods and thinkers of artistic history. I will definitely be returning to the needed sections (particularly those on the Middle Ages and the modern world) for review in the future.
And if nothing else, it is encouraging to see a major modern thinker engaging aesthetics. That is rare enough to be worthy of attention and time.

Weaknesses: This book has two major weaknesses, the first is editing. This is always a fairly irritating one for me, since it means that either the author or the publisher or both (possibly also the translator in this case) got lazy along the way and just didn't do their job well. If I'm going to give money and time to your creative work, you should at least have the decency to care about keeping it coherent.
The second is that there's really no overall theme. Which is (spoiler alert- though it's nonfiction so I doubt anyone actually cares) one of the points he makes about Beauty, that it is no consistent through time. People's and cultures' perceptions of Beauty shift and grow and change from year to year, and region to region. Therefore, he argues, there is no (perhaps there cannot even be) any solid and lasting definition of Beauty. Beauty at the end of the day is relative, despite his claim that it is pervasive throughout both our culture and cultures past. Which functionally turns this into a 400 page episode of Seinfeld. Not that it's funny, but that it's a book about nothing. Or at least, nothing that has any transcendent value. If there is no ultimate Beauty, and it's all relative, why should we be bothered to read a book about it?
Well, as I said above, it is worth reading. But it would be more worth reading if Eco had articulated his own philosophy of Beauty and then talked about it in the context of aesthetics through history. In his failure to do so, this book is ultimately yet another postmodern disappointment.
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Wazzra Absolutely accurate!

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