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9 July 2009 / April

Why lawyers are like avocados

Umberto Eco is probably best known for his novels like The Name of the Rose and the like, big sprawling novels that I see at book sales and libraries all the time and always kind of ignore, assuming they’re not my style.  In contrast, his tidy little collection of essays brilliantly (for people like me) titled How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays has been on my short list for years, and I have scoured countless bookshelves in search of it, to no avail.

Until Monday, when I discovered it sitting innocently in the public library, as if it had been there all along rather than concealed somewhere in the bowels of the earth.

I expected some sort of metaphorical finagling in the titular essay to bring its superficial ridiculosity down to a more respectable level.  To my utter delight, there was none.  “How to Travel with a Salmon” is all of two pages long, and the salmon– a real, nonmetaphorical salmon– is purchased in the second paragraph.  And those two pages?  Hysterically funny.  In the penultimate paragraph appears this sentence: “I asked for a lawyer, and they brought me an avocado.”  It’s fabulous.

Most of the other essays are similar: brief, anecdotal, hilarious.  There were only a few longer than three pages and a few dull enough for me to skim.  The rest are gems.

The common aim of most of them is to satirize the modern world, or at least the modern world of the late ’80s and early ’90s– hence titles like “How Not to Use the Fax Machine,” which indicates that the author had no inkling of how electronic mail would exacerbate the problems he addresses, like spam.  The mere notion of fax spam is actually really amusing to me, considering that I only use fax for college applications and similar official things.

Also, conceptually I still find fax machines really bizarre, but we can go into that at another date.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that some of the selections have the tone of an old guy expressing suspicion over the effects of modern technology on society.  These are suspicions I sympathize with but, as you might imagine, do not fully agree with.  The benefits of technology like email, in my opinion, outweigh the unfortunate side effects.

Eco also pokes fun at a number of things we all can get behind, including: pompous art criticism, the Italian version of the DMV, airplane food (this one is amazing), sports fans oblivious to your uninterest, people who make jokes about your name that you’ve heard a million times before (“the first idea that comes into a person’s mind will be the most obvious one…”), and instruction manuals for gadgetry or appliances, which he claims “expound at length things so self-evident that you are tempted to skip them, thus missing the one truly essential bit of information:”

In order to install the PZ40 it is necessary to unwrap the packaging and remove the appliance from the box.  The PZ40 can be extracted from its container only after the latter is opened.  The container is opened by lifting, in opposite directions, the two flaps of the upper side of the box (see diagram below).  […] In the event that the lid does not open at the first attempt, the consumer is advised to try a second time.  Once the lid is opened, it is advisable to tear off the red strip before removing the inner, aluminum lid; otherwise the container will explode.  WARNING: after the PZ40 has been removed, the container can be discarded.

It goes on at some length, but I was laughing too hard to type it out.  Anyway, read this book.

Aside: I was either going to review this or Freakonomics, which is also excellent in the way popular economics books are.  But everyone’s already heard of Freakonomics and probably already knows whether or not they should read it, whereas How to Travel with a Salmon is more obscure.



Leave a Comment
  1. Rafael Lizarralde / Jul 9 2009 2:43 pm

    heh…. abogado, avocado. >_<

    • April / Jul 9 2009 3:08 pm

      HAHAHA… thank you, good sir.

  2. Sarah / Jul 17 2009 10:53 am

    I think I’ll go read this. (Assuming that you have returned it to the library, because I don’t want to read it so badly that I would scour countless shelves and search the bowls of the earth for it.)

    • April / Jul 17 2009 2:38 pm

      Yeah, I’ve returned it. Although searching the bowls of the earth doesn’t take long, since the earth prefers plates anyway (as in tectonic ones).

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