Day 11: A book by my favorite author

I have been neglecting the book challenge for a while now, simply because as I look ahead, I can’t really see myself addressing some of the upcoming challenges, i.e. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12? Moreover, it seems to me that this challenge is best-suited for people who have read only a moderate amount. Clearly someone who has not read at all, or too little, would find it impossible to complete, but it’s equally difficult for someone, like myself, who has read so much. It’s proven nearly impossible at every turn to come up with a single book to respond to the daily challenges. But I began this challenge and so I will press forward and see it through.

Today’s challenge, despite my complaining above, is not too difficult. My favorite author is Umberto Eco, and I think anyone who has been following my blog since the beginning will say that it’s obvious. I have written about him repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and as I was getting my blog off the ground I had to curb my desire to write about him more lest this become an Eco blog (not that it would be a bad thing). He has been my favorite writer since I was introduced to him in my first college English Comp. course, and have loved his work ever since, his fiction and non-fiction equally.

His work is superbly intelligent, philosophical, historically rich, and always challenging,  while at the same time expressing such a love of language and the written word that reading it evokes a feeling of sheer joy.  They are brimming with an almost excited intertextuality that create these wonderfully complex literary labyrinths. Through his brilliant and beautiful use language, his fiction, which often revolves around the theme of the power of words to shape reality, has the ability to create universes that the reader can easily lose themselves in, as I have repeatedly. In short, reading Eco’s work fills me with a giddy excitement and happiness that I seldom feel with other writers (except maybe Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, both who are linked to Eco in many ways).

Insofar as a particular fictional work by Eco, I’ll select my favorite to discuss briefly here, Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times, each subsequent reading revealing something new and unexpected. I mean no hyperbole when I say that no two readings of this book have been the same. The book, sometimes referred to as the “thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” (they’re in an entirely different league if you ask me), tells the story of three bored editors who, on a bit of a lark, start feeding random bits of a seeming never-ending list of conspiracy theories (think Freemasons, Illuminati, Templars, Rosicrucians, Blavatsky, etc.) into a computer program, Abulafia, who invents connections between their entries. As with many of Eco’s books however, what is written becomes reality, and as they re-write history, their immediate realities are greatly affected.

A superficial read will reveal an exciting and enthralling story, but it is far more than that. I am always surprised the level of historical detail, and although not a philosophy book, it is indeed deeply philosophical in nature. It is far less about the conspiracy theory than it is a book about language, symbol, text, and reality. It evokes Saussure and Meillet in the sense that in this narrative, language is a system where “tout se tient” or where “everything hangs together.” The narrative is only half as exciting as the revelation that language is everything, with lines such as “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.” or “what our lips said, our cells learned.”

Another thing that makes this book, well any book by Eco, so wonderful to read is the care he takes with words. The writing is beautiful and the joy he takes in the written word is clearly evident. These are the opening lines of the book…

That was when I saw the Pendulum. . . .

I knew- but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

Eco wrote, in his essay “Postmodernism, Irony and the Enjoyable”  that the perfect postmodern book is one that can be enjoyed both for its surface story, but which also contains a rich philosophical subtext. This book, along with the rest of his novels including his most recent The Prague Cemetery, seamlessly fit that description.

22 thoughts on “Day 11: A book by my favorite author

  1. When I first read Foucault’s Pendulum the biggest impression the book made was the dent in the wall it left when my aim was off and I missed the open window. I still hold that early impression: Eco overwrites and is good at flashing his erudition in the same way that Liberace dressed for his Vegas shows.

    I agree, though, that Eco is a better writer than Brown.

    Question: How do you see the relationship between The Prague Cemetery and Foucault’s Pendulum?

    • Ah, I disagree, but then, that’s what makes the world go around.

      In answer to your question, both Foucault’s Pendulum and Prague Cemetery have much in common, but primarily they are both about how text and language create reality, in the case of FP its the conspiracy theories being churned out by Abulafia, and in PC its the forgeries created by Simonini. They both are deeply intertextual (think Dumas and Prague Cemetery), and the historical “backdrops” created by Eco are, in both books are incredibly rich.

  2. I defer to your selection as I love Eco too. One of the first posts I read on your blog was your entry on the Prague Cemetery which I am just reading now. Eco has long been one of my favorite authors too and is responsible for my love of historical fiction. Though I can’t think of any author who’s truly matched Eco’s level of sophistication. It was after reading Name of the Rose in high school that I decided to ditch Spanish and take Latin when I got to university. I’ve since read it at least 3 more times, and each time is just as suspenseful and mind-opening as the last. I mean, how many authors can base a mystery on some crazy monk trying to subvert a work of Aristotle?! I’ve only read Foucault’s Pendulum once, but it has set the standard for ‘Templar’ novels as I like to call them. I’ve read all of Eco’s fiction, but sadly, not so versed on his academic stuff. I really need to catch up. I once had the pleasure of seeing him speak at Columbia – I think I enjoyed it more than a U2 concert! OK, almost as much 🙂

  3. Ha yes… But I will say this, it has neen an interesting exercise in remembering what I’ve read. Even the process of deciding what tho select has been interesting.

    • Yes, that’s true, definitely. I really liked the justification for Hobbit. And the horror one…I don’t know all the questions but I’m still waiting for a Shakespeare reference…personally I can put him in all the questions probably…but well…lol!

  4. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12?


    How would you know if you wanted to marry the main character until you read the book? That seems like circular logic on the part of whoever set that challenge…

    Alas, although I’ve heard of Mr Eco, I haven’t read his books. I need to get back into my reading so I might look him up again. Right now, it’s almost 1am, I have a fever and I feel bad because I’m too tired to give your intelligent post a reply it truly deserves. I’m sure you heard the whooshing sound as the words went over my head.

    Hopefully I’ll have a few more brain cells up ‘n running another night 🙂

  5. I’ve tried to like Eco, I really have. I tried Name of the Rose years ago, and it made me feel like I was the stupidest person in the world. Years later, I tried Foucault’s, with the same result. I’ve read a few of his essays, and, I still feel at a loss. I tried NOTR again a few years ago, and, again, by the time I was half-way through the book I was feeling as lost and as stupid as I’ve ever felt. I can appreciate that the man is quite intelligent, and is quite good with a sentence. But, I agree with a commenter above that Eco seems to delight in showing that he’s smarter than most of his readers.

    I love reading, and, although my time for reading is not as plentiful as it once was, I’ve always got a book or two that I’m currently reading. I have a wide variety of interests, from non-fiction, to schlocky mysteries, to classics. I have never been the kind of person who reads within one particular genre. I worked in a bookstore for almost a decade, and, my philosophy is: if it looks interesting, give it a try. I’m even willing to retry a book/author. I never get rid of a book I didn’t finish. I hold on to it, because I know that things like ‘frame of mind’ or ‘stress level’, even how tired you are when you start a book, can all make a difference. But, with Eco, I’ve tried, tried, tried, and… well, I believe that I read for pleasure, not be be made to feel like I’m somehow lacking in my education. So, I’m no Eco fan.

    I also agree with what you said, about making the world go round. It’s our differences, almost more than our commonalities, that make life interesting and worthwhile.

    As for book character I’d marry… strangely enough, that’s an easy question to answer, though I can’t say I ever thought about it before. There are three, really: Bess Steed Garner, from ‘A Woman Of Independent Means,’ which is one of my all-time favorite books. Yes, she’s a woman, and, yes, I’m gay, but, I’d marry her in a heartbeat. She was ahead of her time, and, her views on marriage amazed me — I’d thought, until I read this book, that I was the only one who thought that having to devote our lives to one person was a dumb idea, since we are complex individuals who have more needs than any one person could ever fill. I’d also marry Penelope Keeling, from “The Shell Seekers.” (yes, again with the woman! ) I put off reading this book for a long time, because I sometimes get rather snobbish about books I perceive to be Romance Novels. I was pleasantly surprised at how wonderful this book is — it’s storytelling at it’s finest, and, Penelope is a truly remarkable woman. Third, and last (I know you’re thinking “Thank God he’s almost done talking!”) is Philip Carey, from W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” (which happens to be my favorite book!), and, the reasons I’d marry Philip are hard to articulate. You’d have to be passionate about this book to understand, really. Maybe it’s because he’s the character that seems to be most like me, and, we often try to find love with those who are most like ourselves.

    So, I’ve taken up enough Real Estate in your comment section for one day 🙂

    • I feel like this about Noam Chomsky. I keep trying to read his books but I hate being swacked over the head with my own stupidity and lack of knowledge about politics and the world at large. And Bach. I always feel like he’s too aware of his own genius when I’m listening to him. I haven’t read Eco yet, we shall see. (And I’d marry Idgy Threadgoode in a heartbeat!)

      • I enjoy a good intellectual challenge. Eco does have an immense knowledge of whatever subject he selects to write about, and I tend to read his books with an understanding that I will feel that I have A LOT yet to learn… but instead of frustrating me, it excites me. Its one of the reasons that I enjoy reading him so much. I have also read enough of his work to know that he has a child-like attachment to lists, and boy does he use them in his books (I wrote a post about that, and although initially the endless ennumerations frustrated me, I have grown to really love them. I also suppose having a degree in history, and still having a real historical curiosity helps a lot, too.

  6. I like Eco too – and hugely respect him for his erudition – but wouldn’t you agree that he is just a tiny bit too clever by half? Borges was probably as knowledgeable as Eco, and Calvino as good a story-teller, but I think of Borges as wise and Calvino as witty, and I think of Eco as clever. Dont know if that makes sense.

  7. So that’s Umberto Eco. I’ve heard about him a lot but have never seen his watch. First time I saw the man in the picture and the title, I thought he was Salman Rushdie. LOL.

    Anyway, now I wanna see Umberto Eco and Tom Robbins now. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    Subhan Zein

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