I first encountered Umberto Eco in college. Freshman Year. I read Foucault’s Pendulum because a cute girl in class said it was her favorite book.
In the end things with the cute girl went nowhere, but I enjoyed the book.
I thought it was good, but looking back, I realize it was honestly a little more sophisticated than my eighteen year old brain was quite prepared for. Parsing apart an unreliable narrator, Eco’s semiotic treasure hunt, and the vast collection of characters gave way to simple enjoyment as a quirky and complex sort of action/mystery. It’s attitude towards conspiracy colored my world view quite a bit, though, and I’ve always been one to, like Lia in the book, seek to find the mundane interpretation of events rather than the exceptional.
What did happen, though, was that I enjoyed it enough to go to the bookstore and look for another book by Eco, one that I’d heard more about: The Name of the Rose.
And such was a lifelong romance born.
Few books have more firmly woven their way into the fabric of my consciousness than The Name of the Rose. I mean it had everything:
- Frame story: check
- Frame story inside a frame story: check
- Anachronistically Sherlock Holmes-like character in a medieval monastery: check
- Cryptography: check
- Long expository tangents: check
- Maps: check
- Chapters with those little introductory blurbs: check
It became one of those books that I re-read regularly, that I take along for comfort when I’m traveling solo for work and want a friend, that I pull off the shelf when the house is quiet to enjoy with a cup of coffee (when no one is up yet) or a glass of whisky (when everyone else is already asleep) and can flip to a favorite passage from memory.
As our relationship has continued, I’ve grown more sophisticated in my reading, so in a way NotR has been a sort of benchmark for my development as a thinker and a reader: discovering the layers of Eco’s story, the points about messages and symbology that go well beyond an obvious cipher or an ornate church door, the depth of the melancholy futility and loss captured in those pages.
Perhaps that is, at this point, the most valuable thing about my relationship with NotR: I can recall how it has unfolded in subsequent readings from a murder mystery into a murder mystery that breathed life into history, into something that poked at the meaning of narrative, into something that peered at existential questions such as the meaning of knowledge and how willful agency juxtaposes with chance.
I have a habit of compiling lists of books…books that I’d like if stranded on an island, books that would give the reader an insight into me, books that share common themes with other books that I’ve put on other lists. No mater what the list, The Name of the Rose always shows up.
Eco’s passing yesterday has got it off the shelf again, for it is time to mark my respect for this author with another read-through.
I think I’ll grab Foucault’s Pendulum again as well, it has been more than two decades. I’ll confess The Island of the Day Before and Baudolino didn’t do that much for me and I haven’t read any of his more recent works. I should, and perhaps this is the time for a Spring 2016 Eco-athon.
But it’ll always be that troubled monastery, those dying monks, William of Baskerville’s phlegmatic deductions, and the layers of story and history, that will warm my memory.