A rigorous exploration for able academics.


Like a collection of TED talks on philosophy and literary history, these 12 dazzling texts explore grand themes of intellectual curiosity such as beauty, secrecy, the invisible, and the sacred.

Each essay was originally presented as a lecture at the Milanesiana Festival in Milan, where Eco (Chronicles of a Liquid Society, 2017, etc.) spoke yearly from 2001 to 2015. They represent “a rough and ready semiotics,” but they maintain a sense of familiarity and oral tradition that aligns the book with works like Plato’s Symposium and other ancient philosophical texts. Eco explores big ideas, some of which were prompted by the festival’s organizers, and with a staggering bibliography of sources, he playfully meanders from the writings of Thomas Aquinas to Alexandre Dumas to Dan Brown. In a 2004 lecture on the sublime, he explores the medieval understanding of beauty in terms of proportion, luminosity, and integrity, all while invoking the golden ratio and the splendor of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. The following year, Eco delivered a lecture on ugliness that drew on The Tempest’s Caliban, Cyrano de Bergerac, and even a bevy of grotesque Bond villains from Ian Fleming’s novels. It’s a thrill to connect ideas between lectures: Eco’s thoughts on ugliness, beauty, and kitsch return in a 2012 talk on imperfections in art and literature, where he explains, “what we look for in a work of art (at least these days) is not a correspondence to a canon of taste, but to an internal norm, where economy and formal consistency regulate the text in all its parts.” In other words, context is key. But how to contextualize this book, with its heightened erudition and limited accessibility? With philosophical citations that span pages at a time and Eco’s penchant for using the original Latin whenever he can, this book’s “internal norm” is situated in the college-level classroom or the special collections wing of a university library.

A rigorous exploration for able academics.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-674-24089-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 7, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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