The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980, translated from Italian by William Weaver-1998-501 pages)
The Name of the Rose is set in the 14th century in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. Umberto Eco (1932.) is a serious medieval scholar, a philosopher, literary critic and a semiotician. Semiotics is the study of any process that involves signs to create meaning. Signs are seen as any form of communications. It is also a study of the forms of language and communications. In literary theory it studies the way in which a work of literary art communicates its meaning and the melding of form and theme. The Name of the Rose is many things. It is a study in the way in which books communicate. The monks in the monastery were in many cases very into the reading life. Semiotics as literary criticism treats a work as part of a tradition that takes its meaning in part from the books that come before it. It gives us a very good look at life in a medieval monastery. I really enjoyed the parts of the book where we got a look at life outside the monastery and at the lives of the monks prior to their entry into the order. It also goes into great detail on the theological theories of the era in various conversations the monks have with each other. We also see behind the highly structured theories of the day to the real way the people of the time thought. We see the barbaric ways of the inquisition, we see what the brothers eat and what it takes to run a monastery. We get a great look at the library and what was involved in the reading life prior to the invention of the printing press. Some of the brothers seem to have entered the order not so much out of religious conviction as to escape from the harsh life of the era in a way that allowed them to pursue their love of reading and learning. There are interesting conversations on a number of topics. One of them relates to the question "Did Jesus ever laugh and why or why not?". The monks also talk about whether the love of learning is actually a sin in that if all you need to do is to love God in the right way (as their religion claims) why would you need to read and learn? There are some very good things said about the reading life in this book.
To know what one book says you must read others?
At times this can be so. Often books speak of other books. Often a harmless book is like a seed that will blossom into a dangerous book, or is it the other way around: it is the sweet fruit with the bitter stem. In reading Albert, couldn't I learn what Thomas might have said?
Books are not made to be believed but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we must not ask what it says but what it means, a precept the commentators on the holy books had very clearly in mind.Here in brief is the semiotic view of the reading process:
The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their terms speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts: therefore it is dumb.The plot of The Name of the Rose centers on a series of murders in the monastery. Our lead character is called into investigate these murders. In doing so he makes use of the scientific procedures of the time as well as methods of Aristotle. The book can really be seen as a study of the reading life and how the monks, some very well read in Pagan texts as well as the holy writ, see the world in terms of the literary works they have internalized. We have seen this topic before in the works of Junichiro Tanizaki and Natsume Soseki. If you read their works you will come to see the cultured classes of Japan in the middle ages had much the same relationship to texts that the monks in The Name of the Rose do even though their religious views are totally diverse from one another.
The Name of the Rose is not a light read. I found the medieval philosophy classes I took many years ago very useful in understanding some of this work. I think it has an excellent change of being classified as a classic one day. This is Umberto Eco's first novel and my first read of his works. The Name of the Rose seems to be for sure the most read of his books. I am very glad I read it as I has been on my mental to be read list for a long time. If anyone has read other novels by Eco, I would love to hear your comments on them.