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[444] How to Travel with a Salmon – Umberto Eco

” Unfortunately, there is one inexorable law of technology, and it is this: when revolutionary inventions become widely accessible, they cease to be accessible. Technology is inherently democratic, because it promises the same services to all; but it works only if the rich are alone in using it. ” (151)

Umberto Eco’s assembled essays are both impishly witty and bitingly fun. From the advice on eating in a commercial jetliner (which comes in handy as I was about to be served a meal while reading the book), the trick for going through customs unmolested, the downside of traveling with non-endurable goods to dealing with the leaky coffee-pot from hell in luxurious hotel room, Eco demonstrates his acute vision of the absurdities of modern life. The innumerable gadgets that claim to make life simpler and convenient also make us hoarders. Fax machine became a godsend when the postal system failed, but soon the fax introduced a new element into the dynamics of nuisance. Until the fax, the pests paid (for the soliciting phone calls and the postage for flyers), but now the fax user was harassed by a swamp of missives at his own expense because he had paid for the fax paper.

Eco’s essays are constructed on the irony of modern technology and its drawback. Cellphone epitomizes the very catch-22 and to my interminable delight he is not shy about lambasting the pathological cellphone users for their inordinateness and lack of respect for others. Those whom Eco repudiates are ones I never have the fortune to be spread from the company: people who cannot resist their compulsion to interact, they can never enjoy a moment of solitude. Nor are they aware of their inner emptiness.

So much for humane conveniences, Eco imposes one question, the same underlying one that addresses the extent to which we make sacrifices for such petty conveniences. This collection is not to be missed if you are keen on light and diverting read but that which sheds light on what it means to be human in the age of technological and informational boom. The few essays that delve in aliens and history are lackluster and a bit off the tangent.

256 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Pre-flight Thoughts

Although long-haul flying is much dreaded by many, I still look forward to the 14-hour flight over the Pacific to Hong Kong like a little boy craving for more candies than his mother allows him. I give up flying business class on Cathay Pacific for a premium coach seat on board Singapore Airlines because SQ is flying a brand new Boeing 777-300ER as supposed to CX’s antiquated Boeing 747-400. My seat is the third one from the right side in the picture–look at all that legroom!

Umberto Eco’s essay How to Eat in Flight is a timely piece just after I selected the bulkhead premium seat on my flight. When you only have 17 inches across to spread your arms holding up a fork and a knife, eating becomes an exercise that might induce a cramp. The “spot-making” food that seems to find favor with most airlines also constitutes a threat to your Brooks Brothers neckties and Burberry shirts. For the ladies, put away your pashmina scarf or cashmere shawl lest they would be sullied.

Common sense would suggest that the foods served should be compact, not the kind that make spots. It is unnecessary to resort to vitamin tablets. There are such compact foods as breaded veal cutlet, grilled meat, cheese, french fries, and roast chicken. Spot-making foods include spaghetti with abundant, American-style tomato sauce, eggplant parmesan, pizza straight from the oven, and piping hot consommé in little bowls without handles. (p.19-20 How to Travel with Salmon)

Nor the long-cooked meat smothered in brown gravy that is usually served on Asia-bound flight any better. Furthermore, finely chopped vegetable and peas are duly served only where there is turbulence and the captain turns on the “fasten seat belts” sign. As a result of this complex ergonomic calculation, the loose corns and peas only have two alternatives: either they roll down your shirtfront or they fall on your fly.

Eating the bread is not less difficult. That friable roll, closely quartered with some meringue-genre dessert, explodes in a cloud of fine powder the moment it is grasped. The flakes and debris vanish only in appearance because they tend to gravitate under your behind 8 hours later. You see, the meal service on board coach class is a matter not to be taken lightly because your etiquette is kept in check.

Since the flight is a red-eye, most passengers are fast asleep after supper. Depending on how my body feels, I would either call the night or read for a long stretch. An engrossing read might keep me up all night. I have high hope for the list of books selected for the trip. They reflect different periods, gender, culture, and prose style. They are works by writers whose writings I have enjoyed and cherished. Umberto’s essay collection is a welcoming change and addition to the fiction titles. The writings are both playful and unfailingly accurate takes on travel and related subjects. Not only are they diverting, but also brief enough to be read on the run.

Essays are more digestible when I’m on the run; but engrossing fiction also kills time on long-haul. My dear readers, what do you prefer?

Travel with Salmon?

Umberto Eco has been hit or miss for me. The Name of the Rose is one of my all-time favorite reads, but his other works are just okay. That said, Mr. Eco has a literary aura that somehow keeps me drawn to checking out his works. I have had my eye on this collection of essays, which Umberto Eco calls his diario minimo—minimal diaries, after the magazine column in which he began “pursuing the pathways of parody.” The title alone is more than enough to convince me taking the book home. Eco has obviuosly been highly praised for his wit and observation, and this is born out by the self assured style of delivery in this collection of small pieces. I perused the book fora good thirty minutes at the bookstore but forced myself to stop because this collection, which touches on air travel, television, soccer, library, cellphone and more, is what a vacation book should be: easy reading with keen observations. The book has enough substance to it that it’s not fluffy. The observations are very clever and in most cases have been thought out in depth and are set out with beautiful clarity, leaving the simple images lolling comfortingly in the warm lap of the reader rather than hounding with supercilious derision. This would be a perfect book (one of the books) to keep me company on a 14-hour flight over the Pacific.