Back in the 1970s, long before the cyberpunk era or the Internet boom, an Italian academic was dissecting the elements of codes, information exchange and mass communication. Umberto Eco, chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, developed a widely influential theory that continues to inform studies in linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory.
Most readers, however, had never heard of him before the 1980 publication of The Name of the Rose, a mystery novel set in medieval Italy. Dense with historical and literary allusions, the book was a surprise international hit, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages. Its popularity got an additional boost when it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco followed his first bestseller with another, Foucault's Pendulum, an intellectual thriller that interweaves semiotic theory with a twisty tale of occult texts and world conspiracy.
Since then, Eco has shifted topics and genres with protean agility, producing fiction, academic texts, criticism, humor columns and children's books. As a culture critic, his interests encompass everything from comic books to computer operating systems, and he punctures avant-garde elitism and mass-media vacuity with equal glee.
More recently, Eco has ventured into a new field: ethics. Belief or Nonbelief? is a thoughtful exchange of letters on religion and ethics between Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan; Five Moral Pieces is a timely exploration of the concept of justice in an increasingly borderless world.
Eco also continues to write books on language, literature and semiotics for both popular and academic audiences. His efforts have netted him a pile of honorary degrees, the French Legion of Honor, and a place among the most widely read and discussed thinkers of our time.
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Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, though in 2002 he was at Oxford University as a visiting lecturer. He has also taught at several top universities in the U.S., including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.
Pressured by his father to become a lawyer, Eco studied law at the University of Turn before abandoning that course (against his father's wishes) and pursuing medieval philosophy and literature.
His studies led naturally to the setting of The Name of the Rose in the medieval period. The original tentative title was Murder in the Abbey.
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From the September/October 2002 issue of Book magazine
Just after a matinee of Spider-Man at a Times Square cinema, Umberto Eco crosses Broadway, gesturing expansively and paying absolutely no attention to traffic. As he walks, lit cigarette in hand, he is explaining a key difference between comic book superheroes and the heroes of classic literature he tries to evoke in Baudolino, his latest medieval romp that is already on its way to becoming as great a success in Europe as his 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Serial heroes like Spider-Man and Superman, Eco says as he blithely ambles across the street, are prohibited from changing; they cannot age or reproduce. He calls them "mythical eunuchs." On the other hand, he says, classic adventurers like Homer's Ulysses and Parzival, the title hero of medieval poet Wolfram Von Eschenbach's epic, are different. Unlike Spider-Man, Eco chuckles bawdily, "Parzival can fuck."
It is this ability to marry high culture and pop culture, the sublime and the profane, the arcane and the commonplace that has endeared Eco to both pointy-headed intellectuals -- who pore over his novels and essays on semiotics delighting in his literary, cultural and historical references -- and everyday readers who have bought millions of copies of The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before for the author's humor and deft storytelling. Not every semiotics professor writes a book that gets turned into a movie starring Sean Connery and rejects an offer from director Stanley Kubrick to bring a novel (Foucault's Pendulum) to the screen.
Eco may seem an unlikely candidate for international literary superstardom. He is a professor at the University of Bologna, a postmodern theorist and an author of essays on eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant and French literary theorist Roland Barthes. He is a man whose fiction gleefully references obscure poet and Burgundian knight Robert de Boron and Kyot, a Provençal poet whose works inspired Von Eschenbach.
Meet Umberto Eco, though, and his popularity makes a lot more sense. For, aside from being a brilliant linguist and academic, Eco reveals himself over the course of one long afternoon spent dining, drinking, smoking and going to the movies to be a man of great humor and appetites, a populist in academic's clothing. "I've always said that I learned the English I know through two sources -- Marvel Comics and Finnegans Wake," Eco says.
It turns out Eco is a huge fan and collector of comic books, enamored of the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four. At a diner, he orders a cheeseburger, says he can't eat the whole thing yet still devours most of it while discussing Little Orphan Annie and T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." Then it's off to see Spider-Man. On a street corner near the theater, he smokes a cigarette as he proclaims his love for musicals -- he says the last good one he saw was Cats -- and his disdain for Liza Minnelli. In the lobby just before the previews, he holds court near the snack counter and expounds upon his friendship with Roberto Benigni ("a great reader of Dante," Eco says of the Italian director and star of Life Is Beautiful). He waxes nostalgic for American movies, particularly Stagecoach, Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandy, all of which he discovered as a boy in Italy. Late in the afternoon after Spider-Man, which he enjoyed immensely for its enthusiastic and picturesque depiction of New York City, he takes a seat in the lobby of his hotel, consults his watch and determines that it's time to order a scotch on the rocks. He lights up another smoke and discusses the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician -- whose stories he first discovered through the comics shown to him by American servicemen during the liberation of Italy after World War II -- and then moves on to Connery, who impressed him more for his acting ability than his intellect when Eco visited his trailer on the set of The Name of the Rose ("All he wanted to discuss was football," Eco says).
Baudolino has already been a No. 1 bestseller in Germany, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Italy, where Eco was born in 1932 (his hometown is Alessandria, and he currently lives in Milan in a house that boasts a 30,000-volume library). And it, more than any of Eco's works, including The Name of the Rose, is key to understanding his appeal. A dizzying escapade through the foundations of modern European history and literature, it chronicles the adventures of the fictional peasant confidante of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Baudolino. The character is named for the patron saint of Alessandria who, the author says, is the only saint who never performed a single miracle.
Baudolino witnesses the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and narrates his numerous adventures: In Paris, he allegedly authored the legendary love letters of Héloîse and Abélard; he helped invent the myth of the Holy Grail; he journeyed to the East to find the mythical ruler Prester John; and he even took time to pen a small portion of what will later become The Name of the Rose. At the beginning of the novel, Baudolino, writing in a language that Eco himself devised, invents an early form of written Italian. The novel is a grand, literary practical joke, written with both great attention to historical detail and an irreverent and deliciously vulgar sense of humor redolent of Joseph Heller, Monty Python and Woody Allen, whose early works Eco once translated into Italian. It is both a fantastical, easy-to-read adventure and a rigorous historical and literary exercise. It is, agrees the author who likens his novels to club sandwiches, "a double-layered story. But it is not necessary that the first-level reader also catches the second level."
One might think that American audiences might not be ready for a novel so caught up in the particularities of medieval European history and literature, filled with what Eco describes as "inside jokes for three people." But those who have underestimated the ability of the author's humor and irreverence to overcome the obscurity of his subject matter have been proven wrong before.
"It is a myth of publishers that people want to read easy things," Eco says. "The most interesting letters I received about The Name of the Rose were from people in the Midwest that maybe didn't understand exactly, but wanted to understand more and who were excited by this picture of a world which was not their own. Every European goes on the streets and sees medieval churches. Not if you live in Indianapolis. The most exciting letters I received were from people in places like that. There are more people than you think who want to have a challenging experience, in which they are obliged to reflect about the past."
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|Umberto Eco Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Umberto Eco|
|The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 1956|
|Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, 1959|
|The Open Work, 1962|
|Apocalypse Postponed, 1964|
|The Aesthetics of Chaosmos: The Middle Ages of James Joyce, 1965|
|The Three Astronauts, 1966|
|The Bomb and the General (juvenile), 1966|
|A Theory of Semiotics, 1976|
|The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, 1979|
|The Name of the Rose, 1980|
|Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, 1983|
|The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, 1983|
|Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 1984|
|Foucault's Pendulum, 1988|
|The Limits of Interpretation, 1990|
|How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, 1992|
|Interpretation and Overinterpretation, 1992|
|The Search for the Perfect Language (Making of Europe Series), 1993|
|Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, 1994|
|The Island of the Day Before, 1994|
|Belief or Nonbelief?: A Confrontation, 1995|
|Five Moral Pieces, 1997|
|Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, 1997|
|Talking of Joyce: Umberto Eco, Liberato Santoro-Brienza, 1998|
|Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, 1998|
|Experiences in Translation, 2000|
|On Literature, 2004|
|History of Beauty, 2004|
|The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, 2005|
|On Ugliness, 2007|
|Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, 2007|