Monthly Archives: February 2016

In memoriam: Umberto Eco, 1932-2016

I hope you don’t mind, but I am foregoing my usual song lyric/post title format this time. In this particular case, I don’t feel it’s appropriate.  The importance of someone’s life shouldn’t be reduced to  song title.

Last night I logged onto Facebook and learned that one of my favorite authors had died.

Not Harper Lee — although To Kill a Mockingbird is indeed a classic of American literature.

I’m talking about Umberto Eco.

I went through the first twenty years or so of my life not ever having heard of Umberto Eco.  While I’ve always been a reader, until college I pretty much stuck with American or British authors. To my knowledge, I never read a book that had been translated from another language (aside from Beowulf or some obscure short stories in high school English class).

When I took my first job at the public library where I would work for over twenty years, one of my co-workers had worked in the publishing industry as an editor.  She seemed very intelligent and sophisticated to me, and I was impressed by her wide knowledge of the various authors in our collection.

One day, we were putting books on the cart to reshelve them when I spotted The Name of the Rose among the titles.  I recognized it as having been the basis for a Sean Connery movie that I had yet to see, and remarked that the book could be an interesting read.

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll like it,” she replied.  “It’s very intellectual.”

Now at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but it sounded a little like an insult (whether she intended it to be perceived as such or not). Feeling as if I’d been issued a challenge, I determined that I would read the book anyway, just out of spite.

And that’s how I discovered Eco — someone challenged my intellectual ability (or at least, that’s how I perceived it).

I’ve told this story to people over the years, and while most react the way I did at the time (“How dare she judge what you’re capable of understanding?”), at least one person challenged that reaction: “Did you ever stop to think that she was using reverse psychology to get you to step outside your comfort zone?”

Thinking back on it twenty years later, they could have been right.

At any rate, I am grateful to her.  Had it not been for Eco, I never would have discovered other authors I love, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Arturo Perez-Reverte. Had it not been for The Name of the Rose, I never would have read Eco’s other books — Baudolino, Foucault’s Pendulum, Numero Zero.  I never would have developed my love-hate relationship with The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Because of Eco, I broadened my horizons internationally.  I discovered foreign films (La vita è bella, La cité des enfants perdus, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain), and musicians such as Emma Shapplin,  Louis Bertignac, and the participants in the wonderful French annual charity concert Les Enfoirés.

Umberto Eco made me a better writer, a more creative thinker, and above all more aware of the world I live in.  Words are not adequate to express my gratitude. As he said himself in the postscript to The Name of the Rose: “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”

Anything I say has been said before, and (most often) more eloquently than I could say it myself. So I will simply say this:

“Thank you. And may you rest in peace.”

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