Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose

Name of the Rose is not a mystery for sissies or mediocre readers, any more than Riddley Walker is a postapocalyptic science fiction novel for sissies and mediocre readers. If you never got past Heinlein’s juveniles, don’t even think about Riddley Walker. If you think that Joanne Fluke has nice depth and Sue Grafton is complex, don’t even think about Name of the Rose. However, if you thought Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was a somewhat difficult but pleasant day’s read, Eco is for you.

A true monastic book for proper readers, if you will.

Not surprising, given that it’s set in the library of a monastery in the early 14th century. The mystery itself isn’t that complicated: the library of all libraries has been gathered into the arms of a very secretive group of librarians who wish to preserve it for themselves and not allow the unwashed plebeian public to even know what’s IN the collection. Over the centuries, the chief librarians have preserved the marvels within the library with a combination of a literally labyrinthine cataloguing system, restricted access to the stacks and the occasional bowl of smoldering hashish. Each head librarian trains a successor who is himself sworn to secrecy by his predecessor when said predecessor reaches his deathbed. When the monks resident in the community whom the librarians believe unworthy start discovering for themselves the secrets contained therein, the librarians must do away with them. The abbot hopes that an outsider, the astute logician William of Baskerville, will be brave enough to reveal what the abbot’s own flock have concealed for so many generations.

Eco uses a lot of words, though I think he’s slipping in his old age–The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana didn’t even make 500 pages and much of that was illustration, while Name of the Rose needed a separate book for the glosses and translations into the vulgate. Name of the Rose is full of digressions and diversions; Eco isn’t laying false trails in order to confuse his readers (I think!). That’s just how he writes. Try Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before if you don’t believe me. This, like Eco’s other novels, does take almost 100 pages to work its hook into even seasoned readers. Give it time. Really.

For those readers who want the plot to begin immediately and continue straight through until the end without circumlocutions: Leave the good books for those of us who can enjoy them properly. Name of the Rose is what librarians who do readers advisory for a living return to when we want something to occupy us for more than a couple of hours. What else could those of us who read for a living possibly challenge ourselves with?


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