Independent rare book expert Rebecca Romney remembers the great Italian linguist and writer Umberto Eco, who died last week.
For a young woman who trained as a linguist; who spent more hours in her college years reading in Latin than reading modern novels; who has a particularly delicate spot for Borges, and for Bruno Schultz; and who found her calling in the rare book world, Umberto Eco was like a lodestar.
I feel as if I followed him everywhere. After my first experience with his work, I didn’t rush out and buy every book with his name on it; I watched life bring me the opportunities instead. I’d stop in a bookstore and begin searching the shelves for an Eco I hadn’t read yet. I especially looked forward to plunking down next to the Essay section in a small independent bookstore on that (always and inevitably) hard carpet, boots splayed in odd directions, leaning forward to scan the titles. I searched with the special pleasure of anticipation (even when some older man would tell me with scorn that Umberto Eco is found in the fiction section). Then, I searched after books he had mentioned in his prose. I let his words guide me wherever they would.
What is frequently appreciated in many so-called symbols is exactly their vagueness, their openness, their fruitful ineffectiveness to express a ‘final’ meaning, so that with symbols and by symbols one indicates what is always beyond one’s reach.
—Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco, 1984
And yes, of course, I did read his fiction. Eco had the talent to flirt with truths through telling a story. I remember when I first read The Name of the Rose. My jaw dropped at his smooth coalescence of the esoteric, the thriller, the sublime. And my poor jaw remained unhinged through all 600 pages. A semiotician takes you by the hand through a monastic library—and not just any library, but your starry-eyed, indulgent ideal: imprinted with a medieval world view, exotic because so foreign; filled with passages that seem to have no other point except their own beauty; hidden codes written into iconography; a labyrinth with death at its center. His writing moves your thoughts like a stream through the landscape of his mind.
On the morning of 19 February I was reading a book containing interviews with Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière called (now painfully ironic) This is not the End of the Book. The dialectic format invited me into their discussion. I found myself agreeing, or scoffing, or adding a related anecdote, or putting forth counter arguments, as if in conversation with them.
This is the spell of the best books: they trick us into a dialogue with a beautiful mind.
…books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.
–Postscript, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, 1980
Although I haven’t earned the right, I feel a sort of intimacy with Eco. I realize that’s simply a weak echo of reality: His family and friends are the true intimates, with a real effect on his work, and a terrible right to their own grief. I’m a stranger who has proven nothing, who influenced Eco in no way whatsoever. But, though he didn’t know it particularly, he spoke to me. And, though he didn’t hear it, I spoke back. His words invited me into new valleys of thought, where I could explore the wonders for myself. He was a guide, a catalyst, a friend of the mind.
…imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.
—Baudolino, Umberto Eco, 2000
And I think that’s why this event affected me so much. Eco lived a long and productive life indeed, a life worth celebrating and sharing. Yet my instinct is to feel that, now, there will be no more dialogues. No new trails, no new delights. But that’s not true. His writing compelled so many of us because of its layers and possibilities.
When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.
—The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, 1980
If I read The Name of the Rose again today, it would mean something very different to me than when I first discovered it. I would read into it the new circumstances and feelings I’m living through now. Within the flux of life, shaped by people and memories and decisions and knowledge, my reading of his works will also experience a rebirth. That dialogue will continue.
Heraclitus says everything changes and nothing remains the same. While this moment has the feeling of finality, it’s also a renewal. It’s a time to consider how a stranger’s words shaped my personality, and how much I owe him for that. And it’s time to thank him for it.
I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.
—Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco, 1988
--This post originally appeared on Rebecca Romney's blog, Aldine.