Advice Given by a Famous Author to his Grandson

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016)

Today marks the 5-year anniversary of Umberto Eco’s death. In case you’re unfamiliar with this Italian author and philosopher, Eco was also a brilliant linguist who penned several international bestsellers such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. He also translated numerous works from English and French into Italian and was a frequent editorialist, providing political and social commentary. Last fall, I discovered a letter that he wrote to his grandson in 2014. Eco’s counsel is both jovial and menacing. I’ve on occasion thought about the words of wisdom I’d like to pass onto my children and have found the length of a single letter woefully inadequate. It’s an interesting exercise and I enjoyed pondering a literary giant’s attempt at passing on his most valuable pieces of advice.

The version of the letter that I found online is in French, translated from the original Italian. When my search for a suitable English translation fell short, I decided to translate the French version into English. You’ll find both texts below.

Eco’s letter is largely devoted to the downside of Internet usage. Keep in mind that in 2014, YouTube was the popular video-viewing site and TikTok had not yet come online. According to TechCrunch, kids between the ages of 4 and 15 now spend 2 hours and 45 minutes per day glued to these two platforms. I hope you will find time to read past Eco’s brief warnings regarding pornography. I think his words are important for all to heed, both young and old.

Umberto Eco’s Letter to his Grandson

My Cherished Grandson,

I would not want this Christmas letter to sound too moralizing, in the spirit of De Amicis (the Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis), or to suggest advice regarding our fellow man, homeland, the world, and other topics of this nature. You would not listen to it anyway and when the hour arrives for you to put it into practice (you an adult, and I deceased), value systems will have changed such that my counsel will likely seem obsolete.

Hence, I’d like to linger over a single piece of advice that you will be able to put into practice now, the minute you begin surfing your iPad; I would not make the mistake of advising you to stop using it, not because that would make me look like a babbling grandfather, but because I use one too.

Mon petit-fils chéri,

Je ne voudrais pas que cette lettre de Noël ait l’air trop moralisatrice et ressemble au style de De Amicis et qu’elle se prévale de conseils sur nos semblables, la patrie, les mondes et d’autres choses de ce genre. Tu ne l’entendrais pas et quand l’heure viendra de la mettre en pratique (toi, adulte, et moi, trépassé) le système des valeurs aura tellement changé que mes conseils te sembleront probablement obsolètes.

Ainsi voudrais-je m’attarder sur une seule recommandation que tu seras à même de mettre en pratique même maintenant, au moment même où tu navigues sur ton iPad ; je ne commettrais pas l’erreur de te le déconseiller, non parce que j’aurais l’air d’un grand-père radoteur, mais parce que je le fais moi aussi.

In the extreme, may I advise one thing: if you ever fall upon the hundreds of pornographic sites showing sexual relations between people, or between humans and animals, in thousands of positions, try not to believe that sex boils down to what is being shown in a rather monotonous manner. These scenes are designed to compel you to stay put, to keep you from going out and watching actual girls.

I’m working under the assumption that you are heterosexual, if not you’ll adapt my recommendations to your own persuasion. So, a piece of advice: watch girls, at school, in the park, or wherever you go, because real girls are better than those seen on television, and one day, they will give you much more satisfaction than those you find online. Take it from one who’s been there—and if I had only engaged in sex online, your father would have never been born, nor you.

Tout au plus puis-je te conseiller une chose: si jamais tu tombes sur les centaines de sites pornos qui montrent les rapports sexuels entre deux êtres humains, ou entre un être humain et un animal, dans des milliers de positions, essaie de ne pas croire que le sexe se réduit à ce qui t’en est montré de manière assez monotone, parce qu’il s’agit d’une mise en scène pour te contraindre à ne pas sortir de chez toi et regarder de vraies filles.

Je pars du principe que tu es hétérosexuel, sinon tu adapteras mes recommandations à ton cas précis. Alors, un conseil : regarde les filles, à l’école, au parc, là où tu sors, parce que les vraies sont mieux que toutes celles qu’on voit à la télévision, et, qu’un jour, elles te donneront bien plus de satisfactions que les femmes “online”. Crois en celui qui a plus d’expérience que toi — et si j’avais pratiqué le sexe uniquement à travers un ordinateur, ton père ne serait jamais né, et toi non plus.

Green Lovers
Green Lovers, by Marc Chagall, 1915

However, this is not what I would like to talk to you about but rather of a sickness that has stricken your generation and even young people a little older than you, those that perhaps go to college already. I’m speaking about the loss of memory.

It is true that if you want to find out who Charlemagne is or where Kuala Lumpur is located, you have only to type on your keyboard and the Internet will immediately reveal the answer. Do this when it’s useful but after having done so, try to remember what you have read so as to avoid needing to search the answer a second time in the case where you might have need of it, perhaps for a school project.

Toutefois ce n’est pas de ceci dont je voudrais te parler mais plutôt d’une maladie qui a frappé ta génération et même celle de jeunes gens un peu plus âgés que toi, ceux qui vont peut-être déjà à l’université. Je parle de la perte de la mémoire.

Il est vrai que si l’on a le désir de savoir qui est Charlemagne ou encore où se trouve Kuala Lumpur, tu n’as qu’à taper sur une touche et Internet te le révèle aussitôt. Fais-le quand cela est utile mais après l’avoir fait, essaie de te rappeler ce que tu as lu pour ne pas être obligé de le chercher une deuxième fois si jamais tu en ressentais un besoin irrésistible, peut-être pour une recherche à l’école.

Know however, that the risk is as follows: since you believe that your computer will be able to answer anything at any moment, you might lose all interest in remembering things. This would be a bit like if, having learned that to go from one street to another, there is a bus or metro train that can effortlessly take you there (this is very convenient, and do it when you’re in a hurry), you go on to believe that you no longer need to walk.

However, if you don’t walk enough, you become disabled and are obliged to move about in a wheelchair.

Mais sache que le risque est le suivant : puisque tu crois que ton ordinateur pourra te le dire à n’importe quel moment, tu pourrais perdre le goût de le mémoriser. Ce serait un peu comme si, ayant appris que pour aller de telle rue à une autre, il y a l’autobus ou le métro qui te permettront de te déplacer sans aucune fatigue (ce qui est très commode, et fais-le à chaque fois que tu es pressé), tu penses que tu n’as ainsi plus besoin de marcher.

Mais si tu ne marches pas suffisamment, tu deviens une personne à mobilité réduite,
comme on appelle aujourd’hui celui qui est obligé à se déplacer avec une chaise roulante.

Sun in an Empty Room
Sun in an Empty Room, by Edward Hopper, 1963

Oh, I know that you play sports and thus you know how to stay fit, but let’s return to your brain.

The memory is a muscle like those in the legs, and if you don’t exercise it, it atrophies and you become (mentally speaking) handicapped, that is to say (let’s be clear), an idiot. And in addition, given that we all risk developing Alzheimer’s disease when we become old, one way to avoid this unpleasant outcome is to constantly exercise our memory.

D’accord, je sais que tu fais du sport et que donc tu sais bouger ton corps, mais revenons à ton cerveau.

La mémoire est un muscle comme ceux des jambes, et si tu ne l’exerces pas, il s’atrophie et tu deviens (d’un point de vue mental) handicapé, c’est-à-dire (soyons clair), un idiot. Et, en plus, étant donné que nous risquons tous d’avoir Alzheimer quand on vient vieux, l’un des moyens pour éviter cet incident déplaisant, c’est d’exercer sans cesse notre mémoire.

Starting now, here is my system.

Every morning, learn a few verses, a brief poem or, as I learned in childhood, “La Cavallina storna” or “Il Sabato del villagio”. You might arrange a competition with your friends to see who remembers the most. If you don’t like poetry, do it with rosters of soccer teams, but pay attention to know more than just the names of the current players on Rome’s team but also those on other teams, including teams from the past. (Would you believe that I recall the roster for Turin’s team when their plane crashed in Superga with all of the players onboard: Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Maroso etc.)

Dès lors, voici mon régime.

Apprends tous les matins quelques vers, un bref poème ou, comme on m’a appris à mon époque, « La Cavallina storna » ou « Il Sabato del villaggio ». Et peut-être fais une compétition avec tes amis pour voir qui s’en souvient le plus. Si tu n’aimes pas la poésie, fais-le avec les formations de joueurs de football, mais fais attention à ne pas juste connaître qui sont les joueurs de l’équipe de la Roma d’aujourd’hui mais aussi ceux d’autres équipes y compris ceux des équipes d’autrefois (figure-toi que je me souviens de la formation de l’équipe de Turin dont avion s’était écrasé à Superga avec tous les joueurs : Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Maroso etc.).

Hold memory competitions, perhaps relating to books that you have read (who was on board the Hispaniola in search of Treasure Island? Lord Trelawney, Captain Smollet, Doctor Livesey, Long John Silver, Jim…). See if your friends can remember the names of the servants from The Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan (Grimaud, Bazin, Mousqueton, et Planchet…). And if you don’t want to read The Three Musketeers (and you will not know what you are missing out on), do it, I don’t know, with other stories that you have read.

It seems like a game, and it is, but you will see how your head becomes populated with characters, stories, and a variety of recollections. You will have wondered why computers used to be called “electronic brains”. It’s because they were conceived according to the model of your (our) brain, except that our brain possesses far more connections than our electronic devices do. It’s the sort of computer that you carry within you and which grows and becomes stronger with exercise, whereas the computer that you have on your table, the more you use it, the slower it becomes and after a few years you have to change it.

Fais des compétitions de mémoire, peut-être à propos de livres que tu as lus (qui était à bord de la Hispaniola à la recherche de l’île au Trésor ? Lord Trelawney, le Capitaine Smollet, le Docteur Livesey, Long John Silver, Jim…). Essaie de savoir si tes amis se souviennent qui étaient les domestiques des Trois Mousquetaires et de D’Artagnan (Grimaud, Bazin, Mousqueton et Planchet…). Et si tu ne voudras pas lire Les Trois Mousquetaires (et tu ne sauras pas ce que tu perdras), fais-le, je ne sais pas, avec d’autres histoires que tu as lues.

On dirait un jeu (et c’en est un) mais tu verras à quel point ta tête pourra se peupler de personnages, histoires, souvenirs en tous genres. Tu te seras demandé pourquoi les ordinateurs s’appelaient autrefois «cerveaux électroniques». C’est parce qu’ils ont été conçus sur le modèle de ton (de notre) cerveau, sauf que notre cerveau possède plus de connexions que nos appareils électroniques. C’est une sorte d’ordinateur que tu portes en toi et qui grandit et devient de plus en plus fort avec l’exercice, tandis que l’ordinateur que tu as sur ta table, plus tu l’utilises plus il perd en rapidité et au bout de quelques années tu dois le changer.

Do You Like My Brain?
Do You Like My Brain? by Niki de Sainte Phalle, 1999

By contrast, your brain presently lasts until the age of 90 and at 90 years-old (if you have kept it in shape) it will remember far more things than you’re able to recall today. And all this, for free.

Then there is historical memory, that which is not connected with the facts of your life or the things that you have read, but with events that occurred before you came into this world.

Today, if you go to the movies, you must arrive at the designated hour when the film is beginning. As soon as it starts, you are [figuratively] taken by the hand and told what is happening.

En revanche ton cerveau peut actuellement durer jusqu’à quatre- vingt-dix ans et à quatre-vingt-dix ans (si tu l’as entretenu dans un exercice continu) il se souviendra de beaucoup plus de choses que celles dont tu te souviens aujourd’hui. Et ceci, gratuitement.

Il y a aussi la mémoire historique, celle qui ne concerne pas les faits de ta vie ou les choses que tu as lues, mais les événements qui sont arrivés avant que tu ne viennes au monde.

Aujourd’hui si tu vas au cinéma, tu dois entrer à une heure fixe quand le film commence et dès qu’il commence, quelqu’un te prend pour ainsi dire par la main et te dit ce qui se passe.

In my day, you could enter the cinema at any hour, I mean even in the middle of the show. You’d arrive at a moment when the story was already underway, and you would try to understand what had taken place beforehand. (Then when the movie restarted from the beginning, you would find out whether you had understood everything—set aside the fact that if you’d enjoyed the film you could stay and watch it a second time.)

And so you have it, life is like a continual movie, a film from my time. We begin our lives after many things have already taken place over hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s important to learn what happened before we were born. This helps us better understand the events that are occurring today.

De mon temps, on pouvait entrer au cinéma à n’importe quel moment, je veux dire même à la
moitié du spectacle. On arrivait au moment où les choses étaient en train de se dérouler, et on
essayait de comprendre ce qui s’était passé avant (puis quand le film recommençait depuis le
début, on pouvait constater si on avait tout compris — mis à part que, si le film nous avait plu,
on pouvait rester le regarder à nouveau).

Voilà la vie est comme le cinéma permanent, un film de mon temps. Nous entrons dans la vie quand beaucoup de choses sont déjà arrivées, depuis des centaines de milliers d’années, et c’est important d’apprendre ce qui s’est passé avant notre naissance, cela sert à mieux comprendre ce qui se passe aujourd’hui.

Scene from Wuthering Heights
Scene from Wuthering Heights, 1939

Today’s schools (in addition to recommended reading) should teach you to memorize things that happened before you were born, but they obviously fail to do this well because many surveys show that young people today, even those who go to college, if by chance they were born in 1990, don’t know (or perhaps don’t want to know) what took place in 1980 (not to mention things that happened 50 years before their birth).

Studies show that if you ask certain young people who Aldo Moro was, they reply that he was the leader of the Red Brigades—while in reality he was assassinated by members of this radical-left organization. The actions of the Red Brigades remain a mystery to many people, and yet, only 30 years ago, they impacted daily life.

Actuellement l’école (en plus des lectures recommandées) devrait t’apprendre à mémoriser ce qui est arrivé avant ta naissance mais visiblement elle ne le fait pas bien parce que beaucoup de sondages montrent que les jeunes d’aujourd’hui, même ceux qui vont à l’université, s’ils sont nés par hasard en 1990, ils ne savent pas (ou peut-être ne veulent pas savoir) ce qui s’était passé en 1980 (et ne parlons pas de ce qui s’est passé il y a cinquante ans).

Les sondages nous disent que si on demande à certains qui était Aldo Moro, ils répondent qu’il était le chef des Brigades Rouges — alors qu’en réalité, il a été assassiné par des membres de cette organisation de gauche radicale. Les actions des Brigades Rouges demeurent mystérieuses pour beaucoup de monde, et pourtant, elles ont marqué la vie quotidienne d’il y a seulement une trentaine d’années.

I was born in 1932, 10 years after the fascists came to power, but I knew who the Prime Minister was at the time of the March on Rome (1922). Perhaps in my fascist school, they told me about it in order to explain how stupid and bad our country’s leader (the coward Luigi Facta), who was replaced by the fascists, had been. But at least, I knew about it.

Leaving school aside, today’s youth do not even know the film actresses of twenty years ago. Whereas, I knew who Francesca Bertini was, who starred in silent films 20 years before my birth, probably because I would leaf through old movie magazines piled in the pantry of our house. But really, I invite you to check out some old movie magazines because it’s one way to learn about what happened before you were born.

Je suis né en 1932, dix ans après la prise de pouvoir par les fascistes, mais je savais même qui était le premier ministre au moment de la Marche sur Rome (1922). Peut-être l’école fasciste me l’avait-elle appris pour m’expliquer combien le dirigeant que les fascistes avaient remplacé était stupide et mauvais (le couard Facta). Mais au moins, je le savais.

Et puis, si l’on met l’école à part, les jeunes d’aujourd’hui ne connaissent même pas qui étaient les actrices de cinéma d’il y a vingt ans. Tandis que moi, je savais qui était Francesca Bertini qui jouait dans les films muets vingt ans avant ma naissance, probablement parce que je feuilletais de vieilles revues empilées dans le débarras chez nous. Mais justement, je t’invite à regarder de vieilles revues car c’est un moyen pour apprendre ce qui se passait avant ta naissance.

Bookshelf
Bookshelf, by Ajay Suresh, 2020

But why is it necessary to know about events of the past? Because quite often what happened in the past explains why certain things arise today and, as with the soccer players, this is an excellent way to enrich our memory. Be careful, you won’t be able to accomplish all of this using only books and movie magazines. You can also do it quite well using the Internet, which can be used not only to chat with your friends but also to chat (so to speak) with the history of the world.

Who were the Hittites? And the Camisards? What were the names of Columbus’ three ships? When did dinosaurs go extinct? Might Noah’s Ark have had a helm? What is the name for the ancestor of cattle? Were there more tigers one hundred years ago than there are today? What do you know about the Empire of Mali? And who, by contrast, spoke of the Evil Empire? Who was the second pope in history? When did Mickey Mouse first appear?

Mais pourquoi est-il nécessaire de savoir ce qui est arrivé autrefois? Parce que très souvent ce qui est arrivé avant t’explique pourquoi certaines choses surviennent aujourd’hui et comme pour les joueurs de football, c’est un excellent moyen d’enrichir notre mémoire. Fais bien attention, tu ne pourras pas faire tout ceci uniquement avec des livres et des revues. On peut le faire très bien aussi sur Internet, qui est à utiliser non seulement pour chatter avec tes amis mais aussi pour chatter (pour ainsi dire) avec l’histoire du monde.

Qui étaient les Hittites ? Et les Camisards ? Comment s’appelaient les trois caravelles de Christophe Colomb? Quand les dinosaures ont-ils disparu? L’Arche de Noé pouvait-elle avoir un gouvernail? Comment s’appelait l’ancêtre du bœuf? Y avait-il plus de tigres il y a cent ans qu’aujourd’hui? Que sais-tu de l’Empire du Mali ? Et qui en revanche parlait de l’Empire du Mal? Qui a été le deuxième Pape de l’Histoire? Quand Mickey a-t-il paru?

I could continue ad infinitum and all would merit embarking upon further research. And all would merit your memorization.

The day will come when you will be an old man and you will feel as though you have lived a thousand lives, because it will be as if you were there at the Battle of Waterloo, were present at the murder of Julius Caesar, as if you had been close to the place where Bethold Schwartz, while mixing substances in a mortar in order to make gold, discovered gunpowder by accident and nearly blew himself up (and good for him!)

However, your friends who fail to cultivate their memory will have only lived a single life, their own, probably a bit sad and in any case, devoid of great and powerful emotions. So, enrich your memory and starting tomorrow, learn by heart La Vispa Teresa (a famous childhood poem in Italy).

Je pourrais continuer à l’infini et tout mériterait de lancer des recherches. Et tout cela mérite aussi d’être mémorisé.

Viendra le jour où tu seras un vieil homme et tu auras le sentiment d’avoir vécu mille vies car ce sera comme si tu avais été présent à la Bataille de Waterloo, avais assisté à l’assassinat de Jules César, comme si tu avais été à une très courte distance du lieu où Berthold le Noir, en mélangeant des substances dans un mortier afin de trouver le moyen pour fabriquer de l’or, avait découvert par hasard la poudre à canon et armes à feu, et il a fini par sauter en l’air (et c’est bien pour lui!)

Mais tes amis qui n’auront pas cultivé leur mémoire auront juste vécu une seule vie, la leur, probablement un peu triste et en tout cas, pauvre en grandes émotions fortes. Ainsi, enrichis donc ta mémoire, et dès demain, apprends par cœur « La Vispa Teresa ».

Portrait of My Grandfather
Portrait of My Grandfather, by Ion Tuculescu, 1910 – 1962

For another one of my translations of a letter written by a celebrated author, see A Love Letter from Exile, Victor Hugo to Juliette Drouet.

Original Text and French Translations

Art credits

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

10 Comments

  1. Some wise words here. His point about memory is well taken, and I can easily imagine it arising from observation of younger people. I’m sixty and most of my co-workers are about half my age, and it’s striking how dependent they seem to be on looking things up online. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one needs to have knowledge in one’s own head to provide context for items of data. Becoming aware of a fact and understanding its significance are two very different processes.

    He is certainly right about the enrichment of life that knowledge brings. The world is a vastly richer place to those who understand it more deeply.

    I don’t really disagree with the gist of his “warning” about pornography. As a free-expression absolutist I have nothing against porn in principle, but in practice most of what I’ve seen of it appears pretty dismal, and accomplishes the remarkable feat of making sex look like a wearisome chore. I would hate to think of a young person getting ideas about sexuality from that source.

    Nice piece of wordplay with “Mali” and “mal”. If the letter was originally written in Italian, I suppose the Italian for “evil” must also be similar — not that that would be surprising since both French and Italian have a common Latin origin.

    • I loved the ending when he talks about all the lives you will have lived and all the memories you’ll have access to when you’re old. I turned 61 a couple weeks ago and appreciate this kind of thinking more and more.

      My kids are on the cusp of adulthood. I worry a bit about the time sink of the Internet but I assume they’ll each find their own way to leading a fulfilling life.

      Glad you caught the play on words. I thought the same thing regarding the Italian.

  2. Eco was a brilliant novelist. I found myself reading from his semiotics collection, Limits of Interpretation, just last week.

    • Thanks for your comment Masercot. I’ve only read In the Name of the Rose. Eco’s writing clearly stands well above most authors. I need to read more. Limits of Interpretation looks good. Have you read Foucault’s Pendulum? I have to admit that I started that one a couple times but didn’t finish. I’m thinking of giving it another try.

  3. wow, already 5 years! This is so powerful, thanks for sharing. Along these same lines, because he does mention some elements of this, I highly recommend his most recent collection of essays: https://wordsandpeace.com/2017/12/21/book-review-chronicles-of-a-liquid-society/

    • That’s an excellent review. Thanks for including a link. I loved Eco’s comment about his most influential book. I object when people ask about a favorite anything: flower, food, movie, historical figure… You name it, I’m unable to choose. I appreciate your words about Eco’s book being something to read twice—once to enjoy the story and a second time to ponder over the way it was told. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. This was such a fine journey thanks to your translation, and I enjoyed the art selections as well.

    I hope Eco’s grandson took/takes his message to heart. I appreciated the sweeping nature of his references; it was as if he was giving us a touchstone to all he held dear.

    On a minor scale, I think people miss out if their educations didn’t require them to memorize pieces of literature. I treasure the inclusion in my memory bank of certain Shakespearean sonnets and the introduction to the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—in Middle English. Eye-rolls prevent me from reciting the latter, but I cheerfully do so in solitude from time to time.

    • Eco wrote on so many topics I find it interesting that he chose this in particular to pass onto his grandson. I agree that it was fun to see the examples he chose yet at the same time he encouraged his grandson to pursue his own areas of interest.

      I didn’t have to memorize many poems or sonnets for school when I was growing up and didn’t read Shakespeare or Chaucer until college. I’m impressed that you can recite verses from these authors since the language is tricky. I would expect such talents would liven up most dinner parties. No eye rolls here.

      I may have exercised my memory in other ways with math and scientific formulas. Extremely dull by comparison.

  5. Thank you for sharing this very impressive letter with us! I can only second everything he wrote to his grandson, I might be younger than he was when he wrote it but I watch what’s happening around me and am really sad to notice this decline in self-education.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.