Like many readers, I discovered Umberto Eco through his novel The Name of the Rose. In that book I greatly enjoyed the snippets of history — obscure nuggets of information that pique the reader’s interest. This book of essays has the same quality and I greatly enjoyed it as well. Eco seems to have an endless supply of tidbits from obscure sources, many of them hundreds of years old, sources I’ll never read as originals because they’re written in languages I don’t read.
One reviewer praises Eco’s ‘profound erudition.’ I have no quibble with that characterization but add that his store of knowledge is shaped around his wry perspective on a wide variety of topics. Michael Ceasar, in his biography of Eco, notes that Eco believes every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication — the underlying tenet of Semiotics. The many connections Eco finds between cultural elements (especially historic cultural elements) and language confirm this tenet and make for interesting reading. This held true in The Name of the Rose, where the connections appear stitched into a fictional narrative, and in this book, where they are stitched into essays.
I spent several months reading this book. Because it is a collection of independent essays, I could select topics as they interested me, and digest the work an essay at a time, thus filling in odd, brief reading opportunities. Finally, when I had a larger block of time, I read through the unread remainder, and ‘finished’ the book, though I’m certain I’ll go back and reread some of the essays.