Umberto Eco: In Memoriam

For a young woman who trained as a linguist; who spent more hours in her college years reading in Latin than reading modern novels; who has a particularly delicate spot for Borges, and for Bruno Schultz; and who found her calling in the rare book world, Umberto Eco was like a lodestar.

I feel as if I followed him everywhere. After my first experience with his work, I didn’t rush out and buy every book with his name on it. I watched life bring me the opportunities instead. I’d stop in a bookstore and begin searching the shelves for an Eco I hadn’t read yet. I especially looked forward to plunking down next to the Essay section in a small independent bookstore on that (always and inevitably) hard carpet, boots splayed in odd directions, leaning forward to scan the titles. I searched with the special pleasure of anticipation (even when some older man would tell me with scorn that Umberto Eco is found in the fiction section). Then, I searched after books he had mentioned in his prose. I let his words guide me wherever they would.

What is frequently appreciated in many so-called symbols is exactly their vagueness, their openness, their fruitful ineffectiveness to express a ‘final’ meaning, so that with symbols and by symbols one indicates what is always beyond one’s reach.

Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco, 1984

And yes, of course, I did read his fiction. Eco had the talent to flirt with truths through telling a story. I remember when I first read The Name of the Rose. My jaw dropped at his smooth coalescence of the esoteric, the thriller, the sublime. And my poor jaw remained unhinged through all 600 pages. A semiotician takes you by the hand through a monastic library—and not just any library, but your starry-eyed, indulgent ideal: imprinted with a medieval world view, exotic because so foreign; filled with passages that seem to have no other point except their own beauty; hidden codes written into iconography; a labyrinth with death at its center. His writing moves your thoughts like a stream through the landscape of his own mind.

On the morning of 19 February I was reading a book containing interviews with Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière called (now painfully ironic) This is not the End of the Book. The dialectic format invited me into their discussion. I found myself agreeing, or scoffing, or adding a related anecdote, or putting forth counter arguments, as if in conversation with them.

This is the spell of the best books: they trick us into a dialogue with a beautiful mind.

…books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.

–Postscript, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, 1980

Although I haven’t earned the right, I feel a sort of intimacy with Eco. I realize that’s simply a weak echo of reality: His family and friends are the true intimates, with a real effect on his work, and a terrible right to their own grief. I’m a stranger who has proven nothing, who influenced Eco in no way whatsoever. But, though he didn’t know it particularly, he spoke to me. And, though he didn’t hear it, I spoke back. His words invited me into new valleys of thought, where I could explore the wonders for myself. He was a guide, a catalyst, a friend of the mind.

…imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.

Baudolino, Umberto Eco, 2000

And I think that’s why this event affected me so much. Eco lived a long and productive life indeed, a life worth celebrating and sharing. Yet my instinct is to feel that, now, there will be no more dialogues. No new trails, no new delights.

But that’s not true. His writing compelled so many of us because of its layers and possibilities.

When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, 1980

If I read The Name of the Rose again today, it would mean something very different to me than when I first discovered it. I would read into it the new circumstances and feelings I’m living through now. Within the flux of life, shaped by people and memories and decisions and knowledge, my reading of his works will also experience a rebirth. That dialogue will continue.

Heraclitus says everything changes and nothing remains the same. While this moment has the feeling of finality, it’s also a renewal. It’s a time to consider how a stranger’s words shaped my personality, and how much I owe him for that. And it’s time to thank him for it.

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.

Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco, 1988



23 Comments Add yours

  1. Andy Kilpatrick says:

    beautiful, rebecca. read his obit in the ny times. best, andy


  2. James LaPaz says:

    Always loved his writing. Took along my hardcover of Name of the Rose to ABA in Washington many years ago. I approached him at the author breakfast, told him it was one of my favorite books, and he graciously signed it. I will miss him.

  3. Tahiti Slim says:

    You have caused me to want to read The Name of the Rose .. Rose was my daughter’s name. Thank you Miss Romney for that.

  4. Eco was a beautiful writer. He will be missed. 😦

  5. John Kay says:

    Sad news for the would of culture and literature.

  6. Edward Lee says:

    Very sad, a great loss and a Rose by any other name would never have read so sweet

  7. Thanks, Rebecca, for this beautiful tribute.

  8. archie says:

    Prof. Umberto Eco was my favourite one. wlle, i really like your speach,

  9. solscorp says:


    I have to read his books now.

    “I am a stranger who has proven nothing…”

    I plan to quote you on that.

  10. simong2014 says:

    I once considered myself a widely read person, although I had eschewed various philosophers for the sake of the relatively more enjoyable fiction, I had never really heard of Eco except on certain high brow tv documentaries on BBC2.

    Led to him by the film with Connery in, I found The Name of the Rose in a charity shop, bought it, got fifteen pages in and stopped never to be picked up again. I just couldn’t make it through. Now some fifteen years later I feel I may have reached the maturity of mind where I could be ready to try again. This time, maybe with silence around me and a large malt by my side and fire lit. No other distractions, as I want to move past page 16.

  11. Antonello says:

    Hi Rebecca, thanks for sharing your *so-personal* thoughts.

    I think Eco was for Italian culture as important as Pasolini and Calvino, men with the same curiosity about world and truth (the former more erudite, the second more passionate, the third more oriented to narrate the world through “fairy” tales), and all with the same desire to find the hidden nature of things and a way to change them.
    These three prominent figures reshaped the role of the intellectual in Italy, I can’t see any heir in my country at present.

  12. Beautiful comment. I myself am a semiotician who have found myself trying to explain, even to my parents, what in the world I studied in college. In that sense Eco, was always there as a sort of accomplice, pulling me aside and telling me I hadn’t taken a wrong turn, that decoding signs and symbols was an effort worthy of a lifetime of dedication. Now I thank Eco too for directing my hand towards new accomplices I was unaware of, like you.

  13. Saul says:

    Words from the heart that are really a gift to me (By chance yesterday was my birthday)
    I read his books during my university years (Sometimes when I should be reading my other fantasy books about law) and I do agree he was really one of those rare magigians who put a spell in your soul so you had to reach to the last of their words with pity and tears in your eyes, still “Eco”ing in your mind.
    Yesterday a friend of mine asked me about reading “El nombre de la rosa” and I could help but think: “How fortunate you are”
    Again thank you for these beutiful last words on Eco.

  14. James says:

    A very touching response. I recall reading “Faith in Fakes” and “Travels in Hyper-reality” as a student and finding them far wittier (and often more enlightening) than similar material by his French contemporaries (Baudrillard etc). I take slight issue with your assertion that The Name of the Rose is “imprinted with a medieval world view, exotic because so foreign” – surely it also demystifies the medieval world, showing it to be simultaneously all too familiar and close to home, continuing to speak to us just as Eco’s books will continue to do….??

  15. Tom Rathwell says:

    Rebecca, What are you doing now that you have left your book-appraisal job? Have you written anything that has been published? Also, I have an unusual question for you: I have read the Mishnah, which is a codification of the Jewish oral laws based on the Torah. In the Mishnah, there are many anti-Gentile tenets–some of a predatory nature. The oral laws would have been known to Saul/Paul as he was a high-level scholarly Pharisee. Yet, he wrote in the New Testament that he knew of nothing that he could say against the Jews. He told his followers that Gentiles should give money to the Jews. Being that Paul took part in the writing and I think compilation of the New Testament should we take that document with more than a grain of salt?

    Lastly, do you still appear on the Pawn Stars show?

    Let me add one last thing: You are gorgeous and amazing.

  16. Never read Umberto Eco, but after reading what you wrote about him, for me this is the beginning of the end of not knowing Eco.

  17. Lynn W says:

    I was sad. Dialogues with authors thru their books leads me on an upward quest.

  18. buffaload says:

    Very touching Rebecca. I haven’t read any of his works but now I will.

  19. This is not the end of his story. Always the Eco remains.

  20. In his end is our beginning; always the Eco remains.

  21. kevindglenn says:

    Thank you for this, Rebecca! I did my doctoral work in Semiotics, so you can imagine the looks I get when I share that with people. Rather than explain it, I point them to Eco. Losing him this week was like losing a friend. Thank you for helping a fellow semiotician process the meaning of it all.

  22. mosheprigan says:

    When I heard the terrible news on Friday, February 19 – I was devastated. His sudden death affected me very much. In the last three years I used to send Umberto Eco my greeting for his January 5th Birthdate. I am an avid collector of his books, especially his important oldest stuff. They are signed, some are dedicated. After years of unrelenting search I managed to find Umberto Eco’s Doctorate Thesis, published in 1956 by the university of Turin. Only 300 copies were issued by his Examiner who ordered the university press to publish his apt pupil’s thesis. I have it signed, located, dated and explained by him.
    Culture will miss him.
    R.I.P. Umberto Eco.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s