Eco Essays On Reading

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Dec 20, 2007, 5:56pm

I've been meaning to read this for almost 20 years. It's a book I KNEW I was going to love.

Call me a heathen, but I don't get off on line after line of Latin dialog. I'm also not keen on dialog where one character talks for 3 pages.

I read almost 100 pages. I attached a post-it note with the words "Take Me, I'm Yours" on it and left it on a table at a local hangout. I have NEVER in my life randomly ditched a book. I just couldn't choke down another page or justify taking it to the Goodwill and making someone else pay good money for it.


Dec 20, 2007, 7:25pm

I think The Name of the Rose is an excellent book, but I'll be the first to admit it's not for everyone. I loaned it to my girlfriend, who was sort of lukewarm on it. It definitely helps if you have a fondness for philosophical digressions or academic/intellectual endeavors in general. It also happens to be pretty allusion rich, so the more classic (and not so classic) works you're familiar with, the more you'll get out of it.

What I thought was great about it was that all of the philsophical speeches/arguments and latin really gave a sense of what the time period could have been like. It's set at a time period when the middle ages are starting to give way to the renaissance--the modern world is making its first appearances, but just barely. The whole mystery, in fact, seems to be as much about figuring out how do you solve a mystery (criminal or otherwise) as whodunnit. It also gives you a feeling that it's a world where ideas have power.

And though Eco isn't renowned for characterization, I actually thought that was one of the strengths of the novels. The characters way of speaking, for example, seemed to be pretty connected to their station and certain tactics for wielding power. And William of Baskerville is a great character--sympathetic, smart, compassionate, stubborn, ironic. He almost doesn't seem to fit, as he's just so modern--but all his grounding in philosophy makes him pretty plausible.


Dec 20, 2007, 10:21pm

I found it difficult too, but I was highly motivated when I read it. I was also fresh out of a course on Medieval literature, which helped. I also saw the movie before reading the book--often a mistake, but in this case it helped. I liked it a lot, but it wasn't an easy book, and I *was* really into anything Medieval at the time.

Early this week I was in a foreign language bookstore looking for a Christmas present for my Italian mother-in-law. She swaps Italian Harlequin romances with her friends, so I try to buy her something a step or two up for Christmas and birthdays. I asked the manager his recommendation, and pointed to the shelf and said that she wouldn't read Dante or Umberto Eco. He said "no one reads Eco," and I said "well, I read Eco, but I know she won't" and he replied "you read Eco? All the way to the end?" Uh, yeah, I have. I thought it was a funny conversation. Maybe they simplify him in translation. He's not easy, but he's not THAT bad, is he?


Edited: Dec 21, 2007, 2:00pm

I also saw the movie first, a crime for which I really can't be blamed. It was a Matthew Broderick movie, and I would have been ostracized by every girl at school if I'd shunned Broderick. {correction: Christian Slater, not Broderick; I would have gotten the boot for missing a Slater film as well...}

I agree about the characterization of William--very intriguing man--and that the book is a peek into how the Middle Ages could have been in the monasteries, the bastions of knowledge and books (is that redundant?).

After twelve years of higher education, I don't have a challenge appreciating the academic/intellectual. Having spent four of those years in pursuit of a degree in Literature, I also am not burdened with a dearth of classical knowledge. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a Latin lesson at that particular time. Truth be told, in my casual reading, I'm not looking for academic. I get enough of that elsewhere. I do appreciate an intelligent read, but don't think "intelligent" has to mean academic.

I'll probably give this one another shot at some far distant point, but I won't be surprised if I put it down, unfinished, again.


Edited: Dec 21, 2007, 11:27am

I have to admit, I sort of just skimmed over the Latin. The book is so dense, I figured I'd just pick up what I could and not worry about stuff I couldn't. Eco is really dense, and I find I have to be in the right mood to read his stuff, especially his fiction. (His essay collections actually make for easier reads.) I've had Baudolino on my shelves for several years now, and I still haven't worked up the gumption to delve into it. I know there's a "companion" book (not written by Eco) that translates a lot of the Latin and explains allusions.

The movie is pretty entertaining, and when I read the book I ended up chucking Eco's description of him and picturing William as Sean Connery! (I think in the book, he's supposed to be blond.)

It's definitely not the most suspenseful of thrillers. I think of it as one of those books that sort of allows you to get lost in a different time or place where you normally couldn't go. That's why I don't worry too much about the Latin. I think of it like being a visitor in a foreign city; I'm just not going to be able to absorb everything and should relax and appreciate what I can.

Another thought: I think I can sympathise with wanting something different than the stuff you've studied. Being a physics major pretty much killed my interest in physics non-fiction books and "hard" sci-fi. (The God Particle has been in my TBR pile even longer than Baudolino, and the very name Larry Niven kind of gives me hives.)


Dec 21, 2007, 10:16am

pdx woman - "It was a Matthew Broderick movie, and I would have been ostracized by every girl at school if I'd shunned Broderick."

You mean Christian Slater, right? Broderick wasn't in this film.


Dec 21, 2007, 10:30am

#5 -

Good point about skipping over the Latin . . . yes, I did that too. If there was a word or two I could figure out, it was bonus. Otherwise I didn't give it a second thought.

Also, you reminded me about the companion book. A friend suggested it, and so I had my library purchase it. I can't remember how helpful it was to reading the novel (it probably was, I just don't remember), but it was very interesting in its own right. It was called The Key to the Name of the Rose.


Dec 21, 2007, 11:18am

I thought The Name of the Rose was pretty good, I liked the imagery and the time period. The cloister of knowledge and the whole feel for it. Along with the philosophical debates raging back and forth. But I also agree it is not for everyone.

I've also read Baudolino which was a little strange but also cool in it's own way. What I found interesting was that the book in the center of the fiasco in The Name of the Rose could have been Baudolino buy the description I vaguely remembered.

I also have The Island of the day before which I haven't quite built up a willingness to read yet.


Dec 21, 2007, 12:31pm

The Island of the Day Before is a wonderful book. Do not hesitate to check it out. I agree though that The Name of the Rose is indeed a rough one to tackle. I had to take it in small doses and I agree with the posters above who mentioned that watching the movie first definitely helps. I bought Baudolino for a long plane flight and was repelled by the prose. I tried tackling it several times and gave up. Upon landing I made my way to a Barnes and Noble and exchanged it for Zazie in the Metro which I loved.


Dec 21, 2007, 1:58pm

Bookmarque: Well, do I get to use the "I'm getting old and forgetful" excuse if I'm just pushing 40? Yeah, it was Christian Slater...when I was typing I got a picture in my head of Broderick in that *other* movie with monks. But, I still would have been kicked out of the girls' club if I'd missed a Slater film so...


Dec 21, 2007, 2:22pm

I am one of the people who could not get through the book, either. I have tried several of Eco's books now, and I just cannot read them. Maybe my brain is in sideways or something?


Dec 21, 2007, 3:04pm

I tried Baudolino, too & didn't like it at all.


Dec 21, 2007, 3:47pm

>9 twacorbies: Wow - twacorbies - I did the same thing. I bought Baudolino for a transatlantic flight and ended up watching the onboard movies instead - I found it to be extraordinarily boring.

I had enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum back when I was in graduate school, so perhaps you need to be in an academic state of mind to really get into Eco.


Dec 22, 2007, 4:34am

I thought your job was to convince me I needed to take another shot at it ;-)


Dec 22, 2007, 10:32am

I haven't read Name of the Rose, but I listened to an abridged (oh horrors) audiobook of it that I got from the library. That might be another way to get the meat of the plot if you don't want to watch the movie.


Dec 22, 2007, 2:43pm

I read it years ago, and really enjoyed it, but you've made me want to go back to take another look.

Being a Sherlock Holmes fan helps.


Dec 23, 2007, 6:57pm

I love Sherlock Holmes.


Dec 23, 2007, 10:50pm

#13 Talbin - right? I couldn't have been more excited to read the thing too. *Sigh* Eco is really touch and go for me. Foucault's Pendulum didn't thrill me, but at least I could digest it at a clip. Island of the Day Before however I thought was an outstanding bit of imagination, taking his views on literature ("books talking to other books") and then spinning it into a lovely adventure story with a postmodern end worthy of Calvino at his best. I have The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana now so I'll be tackling that one sometime next year.

#14 pdxwoman - I hesitate to suggest adding more reading to your workload when you just want someone to convince you that Rose is worth reading, but I found that reading Eco's essays really put me into the spirit before reading his novels. His ruminations on literature and pop literature are always fascinating, and it might give you that bit of background interest that will illuminate Rose for you (there is also a very good postscript to the novel, included in some of the editions).


Dec 27, 2007, 7:25pm

#18: Good suggestion. I'll check out some of his essays. Maybe I just need to ease into his work...


Edited: Dec 30, 2007, 1:03pm

Just a thought. Or a memory. Or something -- not a defense of The Name of the Rose. I read an interview with Eco years ago and when asked about this book and in particular how difficult it was to read (for some at any rate, including myself though I pressed on, and I guess for the interviewer in this article I am remembering), Eco replied to the effect that he felt the the first 100 pages were a penance the reader had to endure. It was probably a joke. But I have never picked up one of his books, essays, or grocery lists since. Give me Calvino any day.


Jan 27, 2008, 5:46pm

I quite enjoyed "Foucault's Pendulum", and look forward to reading "The Name of the Rose" as well.


Feb 20, 2012, 4:08pm

I feel exactly the same, could not go after 30 pages!!!!!


Dec 13, 2012, 10:35am

>8 readafew:, that's a nifty thought, picturing Baudolino as the mentioned book.

I like the reason-vs-faith theme that recurs in Eco's work, and he is one smart man to boot. I read The Name of the Rose in university and thought it was great. It felt like a long book to get through, but I enjoyed its murder mystery and the evoked atmosphere of a medieval monastery. I think William's character made the book for me.

Foucault's Pendulum raised Eco to my list of favourite authors, fantastic if you're a cynic who scoffs at nonsense like The Da Vinci Code. Baudolino takes a definite turn for the bizarre about halfway through, but I enjoyed the whole thing. I'd like to read The Prague Cemetery, next time I come back to him.

>20 petescisco:, Calvino is great, too! Everyone oughta give a chance to the 2nd-person meta-fiction of If On a Winter's Night a Traveller.


Edited: Aug 23, 2013, 8:02pm

William is a detective who solves the mystery using Aristotelean logic. The library itself is a puzzle, a riddle that has to be deciphered.

Start from that perspective and you'll understand why the book was a hit with every philosopher, logician and historian in the global academy. Jokingly, I could say that William of Baskerville is the only guy who ever found a use for the liberal arts.

I thought both the book and the movie were tons of fun.


Aug 24, 2013, 9:12am

Can someone recommend where to start with his essays? I also gave up on The Name of the Rose (although I was 16 at the time, so I definitely plan to give it another go some day soon) and would love to ease myself into Eco again with his essays.


Edited: Aug 25, 2013, 8:37am

> 25 -- I don't know "where to start with his essays". But I have a little book titled "How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays". That seems to me like as good a place as any other.

As for "The Name of the Rose," the Umberto Eco page in Wikipedia cites one of their sources: ^ Eco, Umberto; Translator: W. Weaver. (1985). Reflections on The Name of the Rose (in English, translated from Italian.). London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited.

Y'all might give that a look.

The Oberlausitzische Library Of Science.


I recall, though my recollection may be faulty, a magnificent article by Giorgio Manganelli explaining how a sophisticated reader can know whether a book is worth reading even before he opens it. He wasn’t referring to the capacity often required of a professional reader, or a keen and discerning reader, to judge from an opening line, from two pages glanced at random, from the index, or often from the bibliography, whether or not a book is worth reading. This, I say, is simply experience. No, Manganelli was talking about a kind of illumination, a gift that he was evidently and paradoxically claiming to have.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst and professor of literature, is not about how you might know not to read a book but how you can happily talk about a book you haven’t read, even to your students, even when it’s a book of extraordinary importance. His calculation is scientific. Good libraries hold several millions of books: even if we read a book a day, we would read only 365 a year, around 3,600 in ten years, and between the ages of ten and eighty we’ll have read only 25,200. A trifle. On the other hand, any Italian who’s had a good secondary education knows perfectly well that they can participate in a discussion, let’s say, on Matteo Bandello, Francesco Guicciardini, Matteo Boiardo, on the tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri, or on Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, knowing only the name and something about the critical context, but without ever having read a word.

And critical context is Bayard’s crucial point. He declares without shame that he has never read James Joyce’s Ulysses, but that he can talk about it by alluding to the fact that it’s a retelling of the Odyssey, which he also admits never having read in its entirety, that it is based on an internal monologue, that the action unfolds in Dublin during a single day, et cetera. “As a result,” he writes, “I often find myself alluding to Joyce without the slightest anxiety.” Knowing a book’s relationship to other books often means you know more about it than you do on actually reading it.

Bayard shows how, when you read certain neglected books, you realize you’re familiar with their contents because they have been read by others who have talked about them, quoted from them, or have moved in the same current of ideas. He makes some extremely amusing observations on a number of literary texts that refer to books never read, including Robert Musil, Graham Greene, Paul Valéry, Anatole France, and David Lodge. And he does me the honor of devoting a whole chapter to my The Name of the Rose, where William of Baskerville demonstrates a familiarity with the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics while holding it in his hands for the very first time. He does so for the simple reason that he infers what it says from some other pages of Aristotle. I’m not citing this passage out of mere vanity, though, as we shall see at the end of this article.

An intriguing aspect of this book, which is less paradoxical than it might seem, is that we also forget a very large percentage of the books we have actually read, and indeed we build a sort of virtual picture of them that consists not so much of what they say but what they have conjured up in our mind. So that if someone who hasn’t read a book cites nonexistent passages or situations from it, we are ready to believe that they are in the book.

Bayard is not interested so much in people reading other people’s books, as in the idea—and here is the voice of the psychoanalyst rather than the professor of literature—that every reading or nonreading or imperfect reading must have a creative aspect, and that, to put it simply, readers have to do their own bit. And he looks forward to the prospect of a school where students “invent” books they don’t have to read, since talking about unread books is a means to self-awareness.

Except that Bayard demonstrates how, when someone talks about a book he or she hasn’t read, even those who have read it don’t realize what he or she has said about it is wrong. Toward the end of his book, he admits he has introduced three false pieces of information in his summaries of The Name of the Rose, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, and David Lodge’s Changing Places. The amusing thing is that, when I read them, I immediately noticed the error regarding Graham Greene, was doubtful about David Lodge, but didn’t notice the error in my own book. This probably means that I didn’t read Bayard’s book properly, or alternatively, and both he and my readers would be entitled to suspect this, that I merely skimmed through it. But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.


Excerpted from Chronicles of a Liquid Society by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian byRichard Dixon.  Copyright © 2016 by La nave di Teseo Editore, Milano. English translation copyright © 2017 by Richard Dixon. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor.

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