Umberto Eco and the Hot Take

The Name of the Rose was the first book not written at all for kids that I read: I had heard grown-ups discussing it with unaffected interest and had been chased off when the movie was on TV, so I knew  I wanted to read it. Kids can, when they want, find the parts of books that speak to them and disregard the parts that don’t, and I remember glossing over the endless discussions of heresy and church history, and barely registering the sex scene, but being totally absorbed by the mystery plot: the gruesome murders in the monastery on the mountaintop, the battle of wits to decode the poisonous herbs and secret messages,  and the final unraveling of the labyrinthine library. For a kid who loved books, the McGuffin at the story’s center- a forbidden manuscript for which the monks are willing to kill and to die- was not a challenge to disbelief. And as a kid who was constantly losing things and for whom even elementary school social dynamics seemed sometimes bewildering (this was at the same time as I spent most of a year as in a modestly dysfunctional LAUSD classroom), the apparent order and quiet of the monks’ lives, the beautiful names for the hours of the day, must have seemed pretty appealing. I remember going to speech therapy a few months later (my “S”es weren’t all that bad) and the only sentences I could come up with, to the speech therapist’s bemusement, all had to do with monks.

My own capacity to become engulfed in books has fallen off a cliff (like the first monk to die in the Name of the Rose) since then, particularly since 2006 or so when the Internet became inescapable at home as well as at work. But Eco’s passion for books- for the clues to the life of the past that they held, and for the way they speak to one another, whispering out long-forgotten disputations in the dark, when no one is about, is a thing to be enjoyed and admired.

About twelve years ago, during the lead up to the second Iraq War, I was browsing in a bookstore and came across an essay he had written during the first Iraq War, bemoaning the insufficient response and opposition from intellectuals, who were, himself included, too slow to think and act for their words to make much difference.

In our own time, bathing in a sea of hot takes and endless disquisition on the moment, there is much to be said for the capacity, carried so lightly by Eco and lent to us if briefly in his books, to escape the present and wander happily lost in the labyrinth of the past.

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