Book Review: Umberto Eco’s “The Infinity of Lists”

Review by Levi Foster
Hardcover, 408 Pages
November 2009

Umberto Eco is terrifyingly erudite, as anyone who has read his novels will attest: the extravagant wealth of information in his novels, on medieval scholarship, or the Kabbalah, or any of a dozen other subjects, is staggering. And anyone who has read, for example, the six-page-long description of the main door of the church of the abbey in The Name of the Rose will confirm that Eco has a penchant—perhaps even a passion—for the obsessively detailed catalogue. His most recent novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, could with justice be described as an amnesic narrator rattling down through a catalogue of pre-World War II Italian comic books, popular songs, magazines, newspapers, and other relics of his forgotten childhood.

So Eco’s latest book, The Infinity of Lists, a work of non-fiction about lists in literature and art from Homer to Dalí, is at the very least in character. And much as Yambo worms his way through pages and pages of exhaustively detailed memorabilia in Queen Loana, so Eco’s musings on the list worm their way through pages of examples of lists in Jorge Luis Borges, Aristotle, James Joyce, Hesiod, Italo Calvino, Rabelais—a great deal of Rabelais—Victor Hugo, and Walt Whitman.

Let me be clear about what the reader should expect from this book: it is an anthology with an essay threaded through it. By even the most generous estimate, only about a fifth of the book is actually Eco talking about lists. The remaining four-fifths is devoted to excerpts from various works of literature and pictures of paintings. Essentially, The Infinity of Lists is a list of lists, with commentary by Eco.

Now, this commentary is quite good, when it goes beyond introducing the anthologized material. It is of course a list of various historic kinds of lists, as well as a list of the reasons for lists. Eco’s thesis, insofar as it goes beyond such cataloguing, is that a poetic or artistic list is greater than the sum of its parts: it implies meaning beyond the boundaries of its constituents, perhaps even creates meaning in a way that nothing else can. That’s a fascinating claim, and one well worth investigating.

The anthologized literary excerpts are also quite good, though of course they are literally nothing but occurrences of literary lists throughout history, and some of them are thickets of impenetrability. Others, however, are marvelous: Thomas Mann’s list of musical instruments, for instance, or Borges’ list of animals (which includes subcategories such as “suckling pigs,” “those that have just broken the flower vase,” “those that at a distance resemble flies,” “etcetera,” and “those that are included in this classification”), or Italo Calvino’s list of the cities in the Khan’s atlas, or—my favorite—Edmond Rostand’s list of the many and various modes in which the Viscount de Valvert should have insulted the nose of Cyrano de Bergerac, delivered by Cyrano himself.

The principle weakness of the book is the art—which, while gorgeous and varied, is much less connected to the rest of the book than it could have been. Far too often, it seems to be merely illustrating the text, rather than the argument. For instance, when Eco uses Ausonius’ list of the characteristics of various fish to demonstrate the “topos of ineffability,” the corresponding illustration is a mosaic of fish, with no apparent link to the ineffable. Since the book is supposed to be as much about the list in the visual arts as in literature, the persistent degradation of the visual arts to illustration rather than a parallel argument hurts the book as a whole.

Ultimately, what can be said about this strange book? That depends. If you, like Eco, easily enjoy lists of the names of angels, the imports of Tyre, mythological medieval beasts, the physical characteristics of women ugly or beautiful, the streets of Paris, alchemical materials, or the things Roland Barthes likes, then this is the book for you. If on the other hand you, like me, are ashamed of your secret impulse to skip the non-dialogue, non-plot portions of books, then this book will be slow-going. But if you take it a few pages at a time, you’ll find it a fascinating and rewarding look into a mostly unexplored aspect of literature and art.

Buy this book online or from your local bookstore. For more titles like this, visit Rizzoli.