Umberto Eco was a prolific Italian writer and semiologist, probably best known in the US for his novel, The Name of the Rose, later made into a film starring Sean Connery.
Below is my translation of his heartfelt “Letter to My Grandson,” in which he counsels the youth on the incalculable value of historical memory and of memorizing for its own sake—especially in the computer age. The original in Italian can be found here.
Caro nipotino mio,
I would not want this Christmas letter to sound too “old school,” dishing out advice about love for your fellow man, country, the world, and such things. Even if you did listen to me, when the time came to put it into practice (you as a present tense adult and I gone to the past perfect), the value system will be so changed that my recommendations would be outdated.
Still, at the risk of sounding like a lecturing fogey, allow me first to offer one recommendation that you can put into practice right now while surfing on your iPad.
If by chance you happen on any of the hundreds of porn sites that show the relationship between two human beings, or between a human and an animal (in all variety of ways), try not to believe from this that sex is, among other things, so monotonous. That kind of sex is staged to keep you from leaving the house to look at real girls (I start from the principle that you are heterosexual; otherwise, adjust my recommendations to your particular case). Look at real girls, at school or at play, because the real ones are better than those on television, and there will come a day when they give you greater satisfaction than those online.
Believe those with more experience than you. If I knew sex only from the computer, your father would never have been born, and who knows where you'd be—indeed, you would not be at all.
But this is not what I wanted to talk about; instead I wish to address a disease that affects your generation and even that of students older than you, already in university—the loss of memory.
It is true that if you want to know who Charlemagne was or where Kuala Lumpur is located, you have only to press a few buttons and the Internet tells you immediately. Fine. Do that when you need to.
But once you find it, try then to remember what you've learned so as not to have to look it up a second time if, by chance, you have the need, such as for doing research at school. The danger is that, because you think that your computer will instantly inform you, you lose the taste for storing the information in your brain.
It would be as if, having learned that to go from one such street to another there is a bus or metro that allows you to move effortlessly (which is handy if you're in a hurry), you think that you no longer need to walk. But if you don’t walk enough you then become “challenged," as we now describe those constrained to a wheelchair.
Of course, I know you do sports and so know how to make your body move—but I’m talking about your brain. And memory is a muscle like the legs that, if not exercised, withers and becomes a mental disability that—let’s be clear—renders you a moron. As you age, an inactive brain also increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease. One of the best ways to avoid this unfortunate condition is to always be exercising memory.
So, here is my regimen: Every morning, learn a few verses, a short poem such as we used to learn La Cavallina Storna or Il sabato del villaggio. Maybe you and your friends can even compete to see who remembers better.
If you do not like poetry, memorize the line-up of footballers—just be careful that you don’t limit your players to the current Roma team; include other teams and even former teams. (Can you imagine … ? I still remember the names of the Turin team when their plane crashed in Superga with all players on board: Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Maroso, etc.)
Make competitions of memory, maybe about the books you read (who was aboard the Hispaniola in search of Treasure Island? Lord Trelawney, Captain Smollett, Dr. Livesey, Long John Silver, Jim ... ) See if your friends remember who the servants of the three Musketeers and D' Artagnan were (Grimaud, Bazin, Mousqueton, and Planchet). And if you do not want to read The Three Musketeers (and so do not realize what you’re missing), make do with a story that you have read.
It seems like a game—and it is a game—but you'll see how your head will populate itself with characters, stories, memories of all kinds. You'll recall why the computer was called an electronic brain as it was modeled after your (our) brain. But your brain has more connections than an ordinary computer, and is a computer you carry with you that, with use, grows more robust. The computer on your table loses speed after a few years and has to be replaced. But your brain can last up to ninety years and, if kept busy, for ninety years will remember more things than you remember now. For free.
Then there is historical memory, which is not about the facts of your life or the things that you read but what happened before you were born.
Today if you go to the movies, you have to enter at a set time, when the film begins, at which point you are taken by the hand, so to speak, and led through the sequence of events.
In my day, you could enter the theatre at any time, even in the middle of the film, when things had already happened and were continuing to happen. You would then try to figure out what had taken place up until now. Later, when the film replayed from the beginning, you could see how well you had guessed events—and, if you liked the film, you could stay and watch it over again.
Life is like those movies during my time. We enter when many things have already happened, over hundreds of thousands of years. And to better understand the many new things happening now, it is important to learn what took place before we were born.
Now, your school—in addition to your personal readings—should teach you to memorize what came before you. But it’s clear they do not do this well. Various surveys tell us that today's kids, even those already in college, born, say, in 1990, do not know—and maybe do not want to know—what happened in 1980, much less what happened 50 years ago. If you ask some of them who Aldo Moro was, they respond that he was the head of the Red Brigades, when, in fact, he was murdered by the Red Brigades.
We no longer speak of the Red Brigades, who remain something of a mystery to many, even though they operated just a little over 30 years ago. I was born in 1932, a decade after the rise to power of fascism; but even I knew who the prime minister was at the time of the March on Rome. It may well have been the fascist school that taught me about the “bad and stupid” minister ("the cowardly Facta" ) whom they overthrew, but at least I knew who he was.
Today’s school boy does not know the film actresses of 20 years ago; I knew about Francesca Bertini, who was a star in silent films 20 years before I was born. Maybe this was because I thumbed through old magazines piled in the closet of our house; indeed, I encourage you also to browse through old magazines to learn what happened before you were born.
But why is it so important to know what came before? Because often what occurred before you explains why certain things are happening today; at the very least, learning rosters of football teams is a way to enrich your memory.
Mind you that books and magazines aren’t the only way of enriching memory. Internet can serve you as well. You already spend time chatting with your friends; extend that to chatting, so to speak, with the history of the world. Who were the Hittites? The Camisards? What were the names of the three ships of Columbus? When did the dinosaurs disappear? Could Noah's Ark have had a rudder? What was the name of the ancestor of the ox? Were there more tigers a hundred years ago than today? What was the Empire of Mali? And who spoke of the Evil Empire? Who was the second pope in history? When did Mickey Mouse first appear?
I could go on forever, and all would be fine adventures in research. And all there to remember. Then when the day comes that you are old, you will feel like you have lived a thousand lives ... been present at the battle of Waterloo, witnessed the assassination of Julius Caesar, seen the place where the medieval monk and alchemist, Berthold the Black, mixed substances in a mortar to make gold but instead discovered, with a bang, gunpowder.
Others of your friends, who have not cultivated their memory, will instead have lived one life. A life very sad and poor of great emotions.
So, cultivate your memory—and tomorrow memorize La Vispa Teresa.