Too many of the other essays, however, fall into one of two categories. The first is the exhaustive but oddly pointless taxonomy: in ‘Paradoxes and Aphorisms’, Eco divides scores of Oscar Wilde’s one-liners into true paradoxes (good), obvious aphorisms and interchangeable aphorisms (both bad) — before explaining that ‘It is right not to require of Wilde a strict distinction between (true) paradoxes, (obvious) aphorisms and aphorisms that are interchangeable.’ The second and more common category is a series of thoughts and quotations, many of which are undeniably interesting in themselves, but that end up feeling pretty random, despite Eco’s shameless use of such faux-linking devices as ‘therefore’ and ‘which brings us to’.
This book consists of 12 essays, ten of which were given as lectures at the Milan Festival of Culture. Reading them is exhilarating. Listening must have been also demanding, close attention being needed to keep up with the speed of his thought and remarkable range of reference. Happily, he is also very amusing. I doubt if many will read this book from beginning to end, and indeed, there is no reason why you should, because it doesn’t present a consistent argument. Better, therefore, to treat it as you would a magazine and begin by picking out the essays whose titles interest you.