Brain Pickings

The Bomb and the General: A Vintage Semiotic Children’s Book by Umberto Eco circa 1966

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How symbols become symbols, or what keeping atoms in harmony has to do with language acquisition.

Novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco once said that the list is the origin of culture. But his fascination with lists and organization grew out of his longtime love affair with semiotics, the study of signs and symbols as an anthropological sensemaking mechanism for the world. In bridging semiotics with literature, Eco proposed a dichotomy of “open texts,” which allow multiple interpretations, and “closed texts,” defined by a single possible interpretation. Since semiotics is so closely related to language, one of its central inquiries deals with language acquisition — when, why, and how children begin to associate objects with the words that designate those objects. Most children’s picture books, with their simple messages and unequivocal moral lessons, fall within the category of “closed texts.”

In 1966, Eco published The Bomb and the General — a children’s book that, unlike the “open texts” of his adult novels with their infinite interpretations, followed the “closed text” format of the picture book genre to deliver a cautionary tale of the Atomic Age wrapped in a clear message of peace, environmentalism, and tolerance. But what makes the project extraordinary is the parallel visual and textual narrative reinforcing the message — the beautiful abstract illustrations by Italian artist Eugenio Carmi contain recurring symbols that reiterate the story in a visceral way as the child learns to draw connections between the meaning of the images with the meaning of the words.

This particular page presents a lovely wink at Brian Cox’s The Quantum Universe, featured here earlier today:

Mom is made of atoms.
Milk is made of atoms.
Women are made of atoms.
Air is made of atoms.
Fire is made of atoms.
We are made of atoms.

The Bomb and the General is a fine addition to these little-known but fantastic children’s books by famous authors of adult literature.

via the lovely We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie; images courtesy of Ariel S. Winter

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