“I myself like easy books that put me to sleep immediately. But the normal reader who does not spend his day fighting with Kant or Hegel feels respected if there is a jujitsu with a novel, a resistance, a seduction. If the book says yes immediately, it is a whore.”
University of Turin; turned from law to medieval philosophy and literature, writing his thesis on Thomas Aquinas.
Editor, cultural commentator (his subjects have included Disney, the James Bond phenomenon and Chinese revolutionary comic books). His primary career was as an academic, working in aesthetics, literary criticism and – most famously – semiotics, a term coined by John Locke in 1690 (“the doctrine of signs; the most usual whereof being words, it is aptly enough termed also Logike, logic: the business whereof is to consider the nature of signs, the mind makes use of for the understanding of things, or conveying its knowledge to others”). Eco defines it as “a scientific attitude, a critical way of looking at the objects of other sciences”.
Did you know?
He first attempted fiction with The Name of the Rose, begun in 1978, purely because “I felt like poisoning a monk.
A unique phenomenon – a bestselling professor – Eco is one of the few writers genuinely interested in both popular culture and high art, excelling at making the arcane accessible. The Island of the Day Before was his most experimental novel, suggesting that he no longer needs to sugar his historical encyclopaedias with thriller structures; Baudolino is a more accessible return to medieval legends and Byzantine complexity.
Foucault’s Pendulum, one of those wonderfully annoying books which finally reveals the great truth that there is no Great Truth, is both more compelling than Name of the Rose and more human, drawing on Eco’s own childhood.
Though Eco usually finds his inspiration in philosophy and history – Aristotle, the Templars – Name of the Rose’s monkish detective hero owes a lot to Sherlock Holmes. His obsession with libraries, mazes and hidden ivory towers also echoes Borges.
Now read on
Other ultra-literary thrillers to savour include The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears and – for the seriously erudite – Lemprière’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk.
The Name of the Rose translated surprisingly well to screen in 1986, with a masterclass in laconic understatement from Sean Connery, an early appearance from US bad boy Christian Slater and a convincingly medieval setting.
Reading Eco, ed Rocco Capozzi
Useful links and work online
· Official site